AFTER a febrile day, it seems on the surface that nothing has changed. The prime minister may have lost a Brexit secretary but she is still in position. ‘Am I going to see this through? Yes,’ she said, at a defiant press conference.
Her plan, she insists, is the only one still on the table. Nobody, she said pointedly, has come up with an alternative. ‘I’ve always said one of my cricket heroes was Geoffrey Boycott,’ Theresa May told journalists. ‘What do you know about Geoffrey Boycott? He stuck to it and got the number of runs in the end.’
In reality, though, things still hang precariously in the balance.
Environment secretary Michael Gove, we understand, was offered the job of Brexit secretary to replace Dominic Raab. If he now quits the government — and it was still uncertain last night what he would do — the whole house of cards could come crashing down.
Penny Mordaunt, the international development secretary, also looked like another flight risk.
What’s more, the number of letters of no confidence are piling up. If 48 Tory MPs write to the chairman of the backbench committee, Mrs May faces a vote of no confidence.
I’m told that could happen as early as Tuesday (which would be, coincidentally, on the exact same date that Margaret Thatcher faced a no confidence vote in 1990.)
It’s likely — but not certain — that Mrs May would win that vote. But the rebels I’ve spoken to are playing a different game. They are hoping that, by demonstrating unquestionably that her deal cannot pass in the Commons, she will have to quit. She is too wedded to her plan to stay, they believe. Are they right? The prime minister, like her sporting hero Geoffrey Boycott, is stubborn. She cares little whether her colleagues like her. She just wants those runs to stack up.
But something tells me there is more trouble to come today. Nothing has changed — but everything has changed.
Best of frenemies… Theresa finds unlikely support
On the prime minister’s darkest day, support has come from the unlikeliest of sources. Nicky Morgan — who was one of the first people to be sacked when Mrs May became PM — publicly backed the deal in the House of Commons. And a Labour MP told me, ‘I must be the only person who actually likes Theresa May’s deal’ — because it ends uncontrolled EU immigration but keeps the UK closely tied to Europe economically. Funny old thing, politics.
Panic stations might do the trick
If there was a glimmer of hope that Mrs May could get her Brexit deal through the Commons, that has been all but snuffed out.
I’ve spent the last few days speaking to MPs who have been using the most colourful adjectives to describe how much they hate the deal. They come from opposite sides — some want a second referendum, others want to leave without a deal. But, while they agree Mrs May’s plan is a duffer, they can’t agree what should happen next (an alternative plan was also missing from the resignation letters yesterday).
There’s only one way I can see a version of the deal getting through. MPs vote it down, the markets crash, businesses wail and politicians panic.
When it’s put to parliament a second time, it goes through. It’s a small chance but at least it’s still alight…
She should have seen the backstrop coming
If you haven’t managed to read all 585 pages of the Withdrawal Agreement (and it’s about the same length as Moby Dick, so who can blame you), there is one point in particular that triggered yesterday’s flurry of resignations.
There is no unilateral way for the UK to leave the ‘backstop’.
In other words, a future British government couldn’t pull out of the customs arrangement without the EU also giving the green light. As the former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab wrote in his resignation letter: ‘No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime, imposed externally without any democratic control over the laws to be applied, nor the ability to decide to exit the arrangement.’
The curious thing is, this can’t have come as a surprise to Mrs May — Brexiteers have been vocal about the importance of an exit mechanism.
She should have known her deal would hit the rocks without one.