Today is crunch time for Theresa May. Again. Members of her Cabinet are right now locked in talks at Chequers to hammer out a final position on a future trade relationship with the EU that the PM can attempt to sell to Brussels. Today’s quiet, however, appears to signal more the calm before the storm than the outbreak of peace in the Conservative Party, and has everything to do with the confiscation of ministers’ phones on their way into the Chequers meeting. Eruptions, cries of betrayal and even resignations are forecasted for the weekend. But we have been here before and May will hope that she can hold her Cabinet together once again and stagger on to the next Brexit battles that await.
Sadly her colleagues and the press do not share her optimism. The papers have been full this week with stories of her colleagues jockeying for position to take over once May falls on her proverbial Brexit sword. Names like Sajid Javid, who has topped the ConHome poll for the first time above Jacob Rees-Mogg, Jeremy Hunt, who has secured a cash boost to the NHS, and Michael Gove, who has rebuilt his Cabinet career at environment after his own disastrous leadership bid, were amongst them. As many as 20 optimistic MPs are said to fancy their chances the moment the prime minister steps down. But why would anyone sensible want the job before March 2019?
Now if the Chequers Summit doesn’t go to plan, what would it take for the PM to be kicked out? In its simplest terms 48 Conservative MPs would write letters of no confidence to the 1922 Committee, the committee of backbench Conservative MPs chaired by Graham Brady MP. A threat that tends to creep up every few months throughout this premiership most recently when Grant Shapps MP, former Conservative chairman, in October claimed to have had 30 MPs ready to call for her resignation. The May bot back then and even now seems to be indestructible and ready for a fight. Allegedly telling her officials that she is ‘happy to win by just one vote’ meaning, crucially, she is immune from any challenges for another year. Assuming the challenge happened this month then it would mean that she is unchallengeable until July 2019 after all of the negotiations have taken place and we are officially out of the EU. So the challengers will know that if they are to strike, they need to make it count.
Another late one
So the scene is set and the showdown ready to begin. Theresa May will be putting to her cabinet a new ‘Third Way’ to deal with the still outstanding issues of our future trade relationship with the EU, the Irish border, and international trade deals dubbed the Facilitated Customs Arrangement (FCA). The details are still to emerge – not least for most of her Cabinet colleagues themselves, but the top lines have been seen and this may be a long night.
The FCA is comprised of the most palatable aspects of the now-dead ‘Max Fac’ and New Customs Partnership. Some of her Cabinet are already not impressed by the plans. David Davis has written to the prime minister ahead of the summit today claiming that the EU will not stomach this plan and even debating the option is not worth the time.
If the deal that is presented today is in any way a zombified version of the customs partnership, then revolt is likely to take place on the Conservative backbenches. Some of this can already be seen, even before the plans have been laid out fully, as Conservative MPs take to Twitter to say ‘This is not Brexit’.
Once the Cabinet are freed from their shackles and return to their phones there will be mountains of briefings and counter-briefings about what the plans mean in practice. Those forecasting mass resignations over the weekend may be disappointed though as Brexiteers come to realise they have more power to make a change within the Cabinet than outside it.
If she can survive this weekend and the introduction of the White Paper next week, the prime minister will go into her summer holiday, such as it is, knowing that the battle is far from won. Last year, the Mays spent their time in Italy and Switzerland. But with so much shuttle diplomacy across Europe required leading up to October’s EU Summit – and with the sharks in her Cabinet at home circling – the prime minister might be best advised that staying at home is her safest option.
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