Analysis

May’s problems will come back to haunt her

by Nick Kent | 10.07.2018

The prime minister was the big winner from yesterday’s dramatic departures but her party is riven with splits and may yet break up.

For months Tory MPs have been saying “she’ll have to break with them if she’s going to get a deal with the EU”. Well on Friday Theresa May finally did break with the hardline Brexiters. Yesterday’s Whitehall soap opera obscures the fact that May is stronger today than she was a week ago. Her two most tiresome cabinet opponents are gone.

New appointments mean that more ministers feel they owe the prime minister their loyalty.  She has Cabinet support for her negotiation position. Despite a rough ride, she acquitted herself well in the Commons with Jeremy Corbyn’s mediocre performance reminding Tory backbenchers of the risks of allowing him in to Downing Street. And it is that fear – of a left-wing Labour government – that is the greatest worry for most Tories at the moment

The Brexiters are in disarray. They had their best chance since 1975 to get Britain out and they blew it. First they lied and cheated, and now the country finds out they have no plan. After two years, all we get from a departing Boris Johnson is the kind of inchoate rage against the dying of the light heard from so many Leave supporters in 2016. There is no alternative argument, no compelling vision, just a bizarre tirade about the regulation of lorries.  

But, as May knows all too well – and the rotating head of her Chief Whip Julian Smith as May prepared to make her statement yesterday reminds us – the Tory Party is riven with splits.  The Brexiters can’t muster enough support to oust her but she has no majority in the Commons without them. The Chequers proposal does nothing for services, as Anna Soubry pointed out yesterday, and represents a bad Brexit rather than soft Brexit. The publication of the White Paper risks exposing more divisions.

For now May is surprisingly secure. But up ahead are a series of risks to her and to the government. First, she must sell her plan to a highly sceptical EU. It looks suspiciously like cherry-picking in Brussels and so there will be push back. Second, the vagueness of the plan on the role of the EU’s Court and future UK immigration policy are big areas of risk. May is likely to have to blur her red lines further to get agreement with the EU but the more the ink runs across the page, the angrier the Brexiters will be.

And then there are the pro-European Tories. Battered by the meaningful vote fiasco a couple of weeks ago, their tails are now up. May has broken with the Brexiters and moved closer to the kind of Brexit many Tory Remainers would be prepared to support. But May can’t take their support for granted and they have some difficult choices ahead, not least on whether to press their customs union amendment to the Trade Bill to a vote next week.

May has been channelling her inner Gloria Gaynor ever since the 2017 general election left her survival on a knife edge. She has survived but her divided party needs the mother of all miracles if it is to withstand a hard-to-swallow deal with the EU, the alienation of younger voters and its catastrophic loss of credibility as the party of responsible government.

The prime minister isn’t there yet. But maybe she will conclude in the end that a people’s vote at the end of the Brexit talks is her and her party’s best way out.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

2 Responses to “May’s problems will come back to haunt her”

  • Just forget the whole thing. It was ill conceived and is being catastrophically implemented.
    The best deal is what we already have.

  • The problems Theresa May will cause by forcing the leaving will haunt us all forever. Why should we care about what haunts her?
    The primary reason why Brexit is being tested in UK is because of the way the union is managed by Brussels. The EC is so old-fashioned, so cumbersome and very French with some German tinges. Ask anybody who deals with the Commission and goes there and hangs around the late starts and the 3 hour lunches and the complex administration rules! Many countries have had lengthy reservations, irritations, non-Franco-German observations, and eye-rolling “oh well OK let’s do it” approaches to all the various treaties initiated by the founders, in particular the CAP and CFP. Now it’s immigration and free movement within the union, plus nationalistic worries (and rising) about the slow undercurrents about Federation beyond the Union. Brexit is an EU test through which the best EU outcome will be for UK to stay in and help proper democracy make modern changes. De Gaulle said “Je dit non!” but we finally joined the club so let us stay and get the union into the 21st century where European people belong.