“Britain is in turmoil” said Donald Trump. He is right. The country is perfectly happy with its World Cup entertainment, and a prolonged heat wave, but the political class is distraught. Theresa May’s grand Plan for Brexit, put forward at Chequers to a locked-in Cabinet, has collapsed following the resignation of the two leading Brexiteers—Boris Johnson and David Davies—and several lesser worthies. It cannot possibly be sent to the EU, who would bin it anyway. The letters pages of the Daily Telegraph are seething with rage. There is a widespread call for May To Go. Will she?
There are two major obstacles to an early departure. The first is the number of Conservative MPs ready to send in a letter to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee (the backbenchers): 48 are needed. This letter calls for a vote of no confidence in the leader. Conservative leaders are assured that the 48 are in hand, needing only the collective determination that the right moment has come. And this call is by definition fatal to the leader; there is no point in counting heads. Twice in modern times the Prime Minister has been unseated by a Westminster vote: Neville Chamberlain (Commons) and Margaret Thatcher (Conservative Party). Both leaders actually won, with a numerical majority. Both felt that the vote against was so significant that they could not go on. The No Confidence call—it would hardly go to a vote—is itself the death sentence.
The second reason is the supposed threat of Jeremy Corbyn, should he ever come to power. Corbyn is a papier-mâché tiger. Only a general election could bring him to power, and that election is four years away. It could only be brought nearer by the votes of the Conservative Party, and whatever the faults of that party they are not some kind of Californian death cult. Corbyn is used as mothers two centuries ago did, to quieten their unruly children. If they did not behave, Napoleon would come and get them.
But many Tory MPs are reluctant to press the button now. “Between the motion / And the act / Falls the shadow,” as T.S. Eliot put it. Is this the right moment? they ask. We could call this the doctrine of unripe time, for which there are numberless good, or at any rate plausible reasons. It is a huge resource, not only for Sir Humphrey. I'll keep it simple. There is one reason that overbears all others: Tuscany.
In 12 days Parliament goes into recess. The vacation looms. Fathers must take their neglected wives and families to one of the finest spots on earth, frequented in summer by the Conservative high command and its associates. Tuscany is to them what the Hamptons are to Americans. They can meet—or meet with—others of the ilk, wine and dine, toy with their summer reading, place themselves observably in outdoor restaurants and open-air theaters, decide whether the latest Barolo vintages are as good as they say. Were it not a shame if this entrancing program were to be postponed for the unrewarding task of ridding the party of the wretched Theresa and deciding on the replacement? All this can be left to the fall, leaving Theresa to sweat out a new plan. She can't do any real damage now. Perhaps it is best for time to ripen a little further.
Boris in the Wings??
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has declared war on May. He is a genuinely brilliant man—something that does not endear him to his less brilliant colleagues—and dictated the day's headlines when he resigned. “The Brexit dream is dying, suffocated by self-doubt,” he said, “We are truly headed for the status of a colony.” He is not popular in Westminster, but is adored in the country. As Claudius said of Hamlet, “He's loved of the distracted multitude,” adding later “the great love the general gender bear him.” He is in fact the most gifted wordsmith in English politics since Churchill. When Boris speaks, the nation listens. When Theresa May speaks, I would say—with acknowledgement to Mary McCarthy—“Every word is fudge, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”
Ralph Berry writes from England.