There’s a moment common to many great westerns. Two gunslingers are facing off against one another. They stand at twenty paces. The moment comes, they reach for their six-shooters and bang! There’s a moment’s pause. Then, slowly, one of the two topples to the ground.
We’re in the pause. The resignations are in; the Westminster village is fluttering like startled wildlife; and in a moment we’ll see whether Theresa May slumps slowly to her eternal reward.
Whatever happens, peace in the Tory party is over. Theresa May’s government was based on the idea that she could bridge the full range of views in the Tory party to deliver a Brexit deal – by implication one that could simultaneously appeal to the hard Brexit wing of her party, the soft Brexit/remain wing and the wider public. This has looked increasingly unlikely for some time, but somehow it never came to the crunch. Now, with Davis going, we have crunch-off.
Put up or shut up
The first question is ‘do we have a leadership challenge’? My assumption was, after this, there had to be. (That said, the early signs coming out of the big MP meetings of this evening is that there isn’t the appetite. If so, skip to the end, which is even more likely to be accurate).
The Brexiteers can’t win a leadership contest. They can start one – that takes 48 letters of no confidence, and that’s within their compass. But to win it they’ll need 155, which they have nothing like. The Chequers deal has made sure that all of the soft-Brexit/Remain Tories have lined up behind the PM, and they are a strong majority in the party.
What the hard Brexiteers can do is weaken the PM to such an extent that she is visibly no longer a strong enough leader, at which point she would be in some sense honour-bound to go.
You and whose army?
That sounds like a favourable position for the PM – of the three likely situations, the only situation in which she has to depart is one, to an extent, of her own choosing.
The next step comes the day after the leadership contest is over. Let’s say you’re a hard-Brexit Tory. You’ve held the leadership contest and lost. Most of your members have resigned from government. How are you going to get your voice heard? You have at least 47 friends, some of whom will be of the opinion that Brexit trumps all other considerations of loyalty. The government has a practical majority of 13. This is not a difficult government to hold to ransom.
Oh god, not another one
But then go to the next level. If the government loses its working majority, things get really complicated.
- It could mean a general election – the Fixed Term Parliament Act requires it now.
- It could open up a parliamentary realignment – the main part of the Tory party together with some of the natural advocates for a softer Brexit.
These all work against the hard Brexit rebels. The Tories will be slaughtered in any election into which they go divided between rival factions, thereby making Corbyn PM. A parliamentary deal is only going to make Brexit softer – indeed the easiest way for May to get a majority across Parliament is to promise a public vote on the final deal. That would be catastrophic for the Brexiteers. Several of these permutations destroy the Tory party for a generation as well – and relatively few Tory MPs, however Brexit-mad, are willing to actually drive the bus off the cliff.
What’s the point?
So, as the gunsmoke clears, I think it’s likely the PM is unscathed. She drives out her critics, but puts them in a position where they have to show grudging loyalty or risk unleashing the red tide of Corbynism.
So why are the Brexiteers doing it? They can’t win the leadership contest, and can only fight a guerrilla war if they want to drive the PM into the hands of their enemies. It seems futile.
There is one thing they very definitely do achieve by resigning. They distance themselves from the eventual Brexit deal. Previously, Davis and Johnson would be unable to complain about the final deal: they’d set it. Now, they and their allies can call it a fudge. ‘Yes, it’s awful, but it’s not our We resigned to stop it from happening.’
The latter point is the one that really makes my heart sink because it fits perfectly with what Boris and Davis have said today. This isn’t about shaping the Brexit deal. It’s about explaining why the Brexit deal isn’t enough. It’s already clear that the hard Brexiteers have lost. So now, they lay down the lines to show that we need a second Brexit! A real Brexit! One where we regain our sovereignty, where we have the courage of lions, and where we travel to work on unicorns!
Better still, you don’t need to hold a leadership contest for this. You just need to flounce, and be seen to be flouncing. This way, whatever goes wrong afterwards clearly wasn’t your fault.
You also get the advantage, having surrendered any hope of shaping Brexit, that you can focus on shaping what people are going to think after Brexit. The whole stab-in-the-back myth can be up and running while more decent politicians are trying to help the country get through the process
Friday was the end of a kind of Brexit. But my depressing conclusion is that today shows people are getting ready for Brexit II.