Tory MPs have enough sense to realise a new leader now is not in their interest
When push comes to shove, and Tories are faced with votes of no confidence, they will usually tend to side with their leader and their government
Sir Graham Brady, current chair of the 1922 Committee of all backbench Conservative MPs, is not a household name. He does, however, carry Theresa May’s political future on his shoulders, if only in the form of his postbag. When she meets them tomorrow, Ms May will try and persuade Sir Graham and her parliamentary team to support her for at least a little while longer.
For it is his role to receive letters from Tory MPs calling for a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. He has to keep the information confidential, though some Tory members make no secret of their desire for fresh leadership.
It is said that not even the lyrically named Lady Brady is aware of the true and much speculated upon number. If and when that number gets to 48 he is obliged to check that all these MPs still mean it and then, if so, convey the news to Ms May. It is hard to imagine that he relishes such an errand; it would be understandable if his response to a Tory MP approaching him with an envelope was to ask: “Must you?”
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Such is the febrile atmosphere in the Tory party and the unpredictability of events that he may yet have to be the messenger of such news. After all, by now the EU-UK “divorce” agreement should have been wrapped up; the transition period secured; the new trade and security agreement agreed in principle. In effect they are as far away as ever.
Yet for the moment the prime minister’s very weakness, and the critical juncture the Brexit talks have reached, would seem to protect her from an immediate challenge. Her critics must know the chances are that she would easily carry a confidence vote, and that therefore there would, in any event, be no opportunity for Boris Johnson, Sajid Javid, David Davis, Jeremy Hunt, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Penny Mordaunt, Gavin Williamson or Michael Gove to present themselves as Britain’s next prime minister.
This is because they realise that if they did that, Britain’s next prime minister would more likely be Jeremy Corbyn. And if it were Mr Corbyn they would find themselves governed by a “Marxist”, as they view him, with socialism in one country being pursued under his own brand of Brexit. When push comes to shove, and Tories are faced with votes of no confidence, they will usually tend to side with their leader and their government – and the emergence of a leftist Labour leadership with the most radical agenda since the 1940s merely makes them even more certain to close ranks.
Accidents happen, of course, but it is hard to imagine any but a few Brextremist Tory MPs reckoning that a change of leader now – and it would be a protracted leadership contest if there were not some immediate “caretaker” candidate selected by acclaim – is in their interests. As Ms May might put it herself, at the end of it all the parliamentary Conservative Party would realise that “nothing has changed”. They would have to face up to the fact that the Irish border conundrum means it is no more capable of a solution than it has been for the past two years and more. They would realise that to simply dismiss the issue as fabricated by Brussels and Dublin would result in there being no withdrawal agreement; that, in turn, would mean no transition agreement and no future trade agreement; and that would mean immediate economic chaos and long term economic damage.
Trading on World Trade Organisation terms may be what the rest of the world does relatively smoothly; but that does not mean that the UK can depart from the EU single market and customs union without severe and lasting disruption. The disarray – on top of another winter NHS crisis, malfunctioning railways and the universal credit disaster – would trash what’s left of the Tories’ reputation for competence. The voters will punish them.
That does not mean that Ms May will have an easy time of it as she faces her critics. Recently she has managed, as usual, to get through a European summit, a statement to the Commons and a potentially tricky cabinet meeting by pursuing her usual tactic of saying what she needs to say to get out of a tight corner, making suitably tough noises and stressing the positive progress that has been made – the “95 per cent agreed” slogan, so misleading because the final 5 per cent is simply insoluble. She will still need to find a more convincing, and gentle, way to explain to her parliamentary colleagues that the terms of Brexit are not simply down to her or to them, but down to the logic that a nation can’t simultaneously be in and outside a customs union.
For now, she will probably get away with it again, and live to fight another day, as she has done so remarkably since she lost her parliamentary majority in her disastrous snap election last year. When she runs out of road, her party will run out of patience, but they are not there yet. Sir Graham need not ring the diary secretary at No 10 just yet.
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