Theresa May still has everything to play for with Brexit

Published by The Guardian (2nd October, 2018)

Conversations in the bars and corridors of political conferences often start with a question about how the event is going. ‘A shitstorm, total clusterfuck,’ replied one former cabinet minister at the Tory gathering in Birmingham. ‘Simply awful,’ said a current minister this week. ‘Like a three-day advertisement for the Labour party,’ responded another morosely as we rode up an escalator.

It is hard to argue. Despite their own divisions and an antisemitism storm, Labour’s conference seemed disciplined and focused. On the surface of this event, all seems fine with the Tories. Fringe meetings are friendly, focused and often full. The elderly audience is flecked with young recruits – although mostly white male Brexiteers in suits and ties, as one dismayed female remainer pointed out. This is a party that has lost confidence in its core values after sparking national trauma, lacks a fresh vision for modern conservatism, and is struggling even to defend capitalism.

The annual rally has one clear aim: survival of the beleaguered leader. The ground was prepared with Theresa May’s rant over her Salzburg rejection. It feels a mood abounds of grudging support for an unloved leader as she slogs her way towards European Union exit in five months’ time. ‘Sympathy is not ideal for a prime minister but it’s better than anger,’ said one ally. Even amid bitter internal warfare many Tory foot soldiers still prize loyalty, so despite his packed fringe meeting there is plenty of distaste for the non-stop treachery of Boris Johnson.

There is a widespread view that May’s speech today will be her last as leader – which would be a blessing, given how bad her previous two outings have been. Those who see themselves as potential successors – a list longer than you might expect, such are the delusions seen in politics – are jostling for position. So we see home secretary Sajid Javid appealing to traditionalists with infantile tough guy talk on drugs. The creepy Jacob Rees-Mogg professes loyalty while planning insurrection. Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt – by nature a sensible liberal but burnishing credentials as a born-again Brexiteer – sparks international outrage by comparing the EU to the Soviet Union.

Yet May might deliver a shock. For inside Downing Street, there is belief they can pull off Brexit and then cling to power. After all, there is no favourite – let alone a unifying figure –pulling clear of the field to take over. One MP asked 60 activists in his constituency for their preferred choice of candidate: three went for Johnson, two for Hunt and one plumped for Rees-Mogg – but the other 54 picked no one. If Brexit is achieved, party members might be in the mood to let her clear out the fractious old guard behind this toxic mess before turning to a new generation to revive the party. And if Brexit collapses, all bets are off amid chaos.

The big question, of course, is whether May can thread her way through European negotiations to emerge with a plan that solves torturous parliamentary arithmetic. There are fears in the Foreign Office that French president Emmanuel Macron is deliberately stirring up problems to force Britain to stay. And, such is the uncertain terrain confronting our country, even senior government figures offer wildly different answers to questions on the constitutional path towards, say, a second referendum or crashing out disastrously with no deal.

May has been baffled by the hardliners’ refusal to accept the importance of Irish border issues. And even a key figure in the Brexit discussions admitted the best solution to every problem was worse than existing arrangements. Yet insiders are confident they can find a workable deal; when I asked about the chances of success, one put it at 80%. They say, rightly, there would never be any majority for a vote in parliament on no deal, and thus believe almost all the Rees-Mogg mob will come round to a tweaked form of Chequers rather than risk a Corbyn government. The EU, they argue, will also agree rather than face the disruption of a Canadian-style deal.

Their solution is essentially a giant fudge on deal-breaking issues of borders and trade behind a grand-sounding statement of intent that ensures Britain leaves the EU in March. ‘What do you do in politics if you can’t agree on something?’ asked one source. ‘You kick it down the road.’ Some believe the ferocity of debate would be tempered by departure, allowing the transition period to be extended beyond the agreed 21 months while details are quietly hammered out. ‘Effectively we will still be in the EU, even in the customs union unlike Norway, but as a rule-taker and not a rule-maker,’ said one source.

Perhaps this is a pipe dream inside the besieged Downing Street bunker. I am no fan of May, but if she does pull off a deal the Westminster mood will change. She is stubborn, and there is no reason to think she would quit or be forced out (even if is her fault that parliament is paralysed after a dismal election performance and premature triggering of article 50). She could bask in success if the economy does not crash, and focus on the domestic agenda before handing over to the next generation before the 2022 election. This would give the Tories time to unite and attempt to rebuild bridges with younger generations betrayed by the stupidity of Brexit. There remains everything to play for in this extraordinary game of highest-stakes political poker.

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