The War of the Tory Succession is now entering its terminal phase. The ultra-loyalist Amber Rudd, badly wounded a couple of months ago, has now after convalescence returned to the Front. She is back in the Cabinet after Dominic Raab became the second Brexit Secretary to pull out from that unfulfilling job. Michael Gove avoided being the third, since he turned down Theresa May’s invitation, for several alleged reasons—one of them prudential. The iron law of current politics is that the Prime Minister can hire but not fire, and even the For Hire ranks are thinning. It does indeed look as though May is on borrowed time, the loan being offered on loan-shark terms.
This past week May was obliged to make a fatal move: she made public the text (all 585 pages) of the Withdrawal Agreement which has been provisionally agreed with the European Union. Previously no details of the negotiations had been released, but Brexiteers suspected that a sell-out was agreed. They now know that they didn’t suspect hard enough. The fox has broken cover, and the hunt is in full cry. BRINO is what May plans, and the reaction has been violent. In the Commons she had a hard time, with critical questions asked from both sides of the House. The talk is now of a leadership challenge, a vote of no confidence, for which 48 letters must be sent to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady. As of Monday 25 names were publicly announced, with more on the way. There was a respectful silence while the weekend was observed, and Brady himself left town for his constituency (Altrincham, up in the North West).
What are May’s chances? They cannot be good. Her Withdrawal Agreement will have to go before Parliament, and it is widely expected to be voted down. May is “determined to see it through,” and since she loves her job—and has no deep-seated objection to the clothes allowance—I believe her. Her display of fortitude is often praised as “resilience,” but the CNN man prefers “denial.” The excellent columnist Allison Pearson has “pig-headed obstinacy.” She writes for the Telegraph, the house journal of the Conservative Party that has now swung decisively against the Prime Minister. The Letters pages are wall-to-wall loathing of May’s Brexit negotiations now that they have seen the light of day. The Cabinet was said to be “united” in support of the leader, but a harder assessment came from a Tory backbencher: “If the officers won’t do it, the poor bloody infantry will.”
And now the officers have put on a show of mutiny. Five Cabinet members, instantly dubbed “The Gang of Five,” and by Simon Heffer “The Fatuous Five,” have demanded that the Prime Minister go to Brussels and call for changes in the Withdrawal Agreement. The EU has already made it clear that no changes can be contemplated; they have a set Agreement that is for 27 nations, and that is that. Theresa May refuses to contemplate any move for significant change to her Withdrawal Agreement.
So it’s up to the signatories of the No Confidence letters, for the moment. No smoke has yet emerged from Graham Brady’s office, and speculation mounts that princely ransoms have been offered by the Whips to those who have yet to send letters. The power of patronage is the single greatest power of Government. And Non-Disclosure Agreements have uses beyond masking sexual harassment from the public. Against that, critical mass may be decisive, and mighty forces are bent on forcing May out. We’ll know soon.
Ralph Berry writes from England.