The execution of Theresa May has been postponed sine die. It fell to Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Tory rebels (the European Research Group, ERG), to announce the stay of execution. Last week it seemed that she was heading for the firing squad. The 48 letters necessary to trigger a vote of No Confidence in the leader had been received by the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, and the Party moved swiftly. The vote went 200-117 for May, which might appear as a convincing victory, but as Rees-Mogg pointed out there were 163 MPs on the Government payroll. More than half the remainder were implacably opposed and could block any Government business it liked. Rees-Mogg urged the Prime Minister to resign.
This week Rees-Mogg, at his most urbane, assured the Prime Minister that she had his entire support (and, by extension, the rebel bloc which he speaks for). What happened over the weekend? The answer came from the Cabinet meeting this Tuesday. Preparations for a No Deal exit from the EU are intensified; 3,500 troops are to be put on alert for the logistics to be assured; money and all bureaucratic easements are now available to smooth over the unavoidable difficulties of the exit from the EU, which is due to occur on March 29th. The beauty of this arrangement is that No Deal is not Government policy—all sides claim that they detest it—but if forced, by EU intransigence, that is what they will do. The EU is kept guessing and is implicitly invited to come up with an offer the UK can’t refuse. The Tory malcontents are getting what they want, and WTO rules are coming nearer.
The essential situation is that Theresa May is allowed to stay in office, so long as she does what the ERG bravos want. They have her in a straitjacket. “I have been faithful to thee, Theresa, in my fashion,” says Rees-Mogg, and she has had to accept the deal thrashed out over the weekend. There will now be a Christmas truce; Parliament goes into recess today, and MPs take off for Barbados or Teneriffe. Only on January 14th does real business resume, when there will be a vote on May’s Withdrawal Agreement (if it is not itself Withdrawn). The warring combatants can relax, and May can enjoy the Dickensian delights of Christmas at Chequers. But she is under house arrest there.
Ralph Berry writes from England.