May set to stagger on as Brexiters bicker in Birmingham

by Nick Kent | 27.09.2018

Next week’s Conservative party conference in Birmingham will see passionate and divisive debates about Brexit on the fringe, but Theresa May’s stubborn determination to stick with her Chequers exit plan is not likely to change just yet.

After a week when Labour activists forced Jeremy Corbyn to accept that the party could support a People’s Vote (if it can’t force May to call a general election), it might be tempting to imagine that the Tory conference could have a similar impact on that party’s Brexit policies. But, unlike Labour’s annual gathering, the Tory conference is not a policy-making body – it is a political rally. There is no mechanism for a vote on Brexit at the conference, let alone one on May’s widely detested Chequers plan to stay half in and half out of the EU internal market.

What the conference will do is to give an indication of the party’s mood, and that is grim. Will it embrace the king over the water in the form of Boris Johnson, when he makes his much-trailed speech on Tuesday? Will the drift of authority away from the embattled prime minister continue, or even accelerate? Will the increasing number of Tory MPs supporting a People’s Vote begin to change attitudes in the wider party? All these are unknowns because the party is in an uncertain, febrile mood.

What will be on display are the splits between the Brexiters themselves. “No deal” versus “Canada now” is only the latest example of the disarray amongst Tory Leave supporters. It is these divisions which have enabled May to cling to the sinking life raft of the Chequers plan, even after it has been rejected by Brexiters, pro-Europeans and the EU itself.

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Johnson’s threat back in August to campaign against the Chequers proposals at the conference, looks irrelevant now. Will he back a no-deal crash out or continue to support the muddled free trade plan from the Brexit-backing Institute for Economic Affairs, which scarcely attempts to solve the Irish border problem?

Johnson’s leading rival on the right of the party, Jacob Rees-Mogg, is speaking at four Brexit fringe meetings. He will be trying to exploit the waning fortunes of Johnson, who since he resigned in July has looked increasingly isolated.

Rees-Mogg leads the European Research Group of militant Brexiters. But despite excitable talk of their 80 to 100 followers being prepared to vote down the Chequers plan, they have failed to show that they have enough votes in the Commons. Back in July they promised a ministerial resignation every day until parliament went into recess, but were unable to deliver. More recently Steve Baker, a former Brexit minister, warned of a “catastrophic split” in the party if May didn’t ditch Chequers before the party conference. Well there are still three days to go…

On the other side of the debate the recently formed Conservatives for a People’s Vote will hold their own rally on Monday with supportive MPs, including former ministers Justine Greening, Anna Soubry and Dr Phillip Lee. Conservatives for a People’s Vote, whose support been growing on social media, has been buoyed by yesterday’s backing for a People’s Vote by former Home Secretary Amber Rudd.

Tory conferences have a disarming tendency not to become the high-stakes showdown that the media predict and fervently desire. Activists tend to be loyal to their leader. While they may drink the more extreme Brexiter Kool-Aid from time to time, they will not want to humiliate May too publicly. Providing she can get through her speech on Wednesday morning without serious interruption (remember last year’s meltdown on the podium?), the conference may prove to be the eye of the storm for the Prime Minister. The worst is yet to come.

Edited by Quentin Peel