Will the Tories Sacrifice Theresa May to Survive?

Britain’s prime minister is fighting a three-front battle to save her Brexit deal. Most of the party claims to support her, but the prospect of losing power to Jeremy Corbyn might motivate Conservatives to replace their leader.

Conservative member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg speaks to the media after submitting a letter of no confidence in Prime Minister Theresa May  on November 15, 2018 in London.
Conservative member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg speaks to the media after submitting a letter of no confidence in Prime Minister Theresa May on November 15, 2018 in London. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The British government has been plunged into high political drama as Prime Minister Theresa May struggles to contain a three-front rebellion against her Brexit withdrawal agreement. The currency markets, where the pound has been falling, threaten to open a fourth.

The opposition of the hard Brexiteers, who think she made too many compromises in concluding a draft agreement to leave the European Union on Nov. 14, was expected. Her own Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, resigned the next morning. May, having been unable to tempt either the leading Brexiteer Michael Gove or the stentorian Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, appointed the little-known health minister, Stephen Barclay, to take over.

Likewise, May always feared rejection of her deal by the small Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), upon which May’s governing majority depends. The DUP, which wants to avoid differentiating Northern Ireland from the rest of U.K., made demands concerning Northern Ireland that were incompatible with those of the EU—and the Irish government in Dublin. Should the DUP formally withdraw its support for May’s government, the opposition Labour Party stands a good chance of forcing a general election.

What was most surprising for May was the hostile fire her compromise drew from those in favor of Britain remaining in the EU in the Tory party. The so-called Remainers, such as Jo Johnson (brother of Boris Johnson, who resigned as foreign secretary over Brexit in July), have been relatively quiescent for most of the two years since the referendum, but in recent weeks they’ve coalesced behind the campaign for a second vote. Oddly, for Conservatives, they appear to have taken to heart the lessons of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin on the need to sharpen societal contradictions and intensify conflict by making things worse before they can be better. According to this view, only by voting down the withdrawal agreement, but also taking the risk of putting a real Marxist like Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in power, can they hope to force another Brexit referendum.

May could surely not hang on if Parliament voted to have a referendum in which remaining was an option, and getting the legislation necessary for a referendum through Parliament without control of the government would reverse two centuries of British constitutional practice.

Thus besieged, the prime minister has struggled to assert her authority in the House of Commons. Answering questions for three hours on Thursday, she drew laughter with her promise of a “smooth and orderly” Brexit. She faced a direct attack from the extreme Brexiteer Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg, who openly asked her to give a reason why he shouldn’t submit a letter to a Conservative Party organ known as the 1922 committee calling for a vote of no confidence in her as party leader.

Rees-Mogg followed up with a press conference announcing he had carried out his threat. He and fellow members of the anti-EU European Research Group have started to send in the letters. Under party rules, when the total number of letters received reaches 48, a ballot on May’s leadership will be triggered (the exact number of letters received so far is a secret, but Graham Brady, the committee’s chairman, keeps count).

Rees-Mogg’s insurgency—he has insisted it’s “not a coup” with all the credibility of this Zimbabwean officer—has misfired. As of Monday morning, only 25 Tory members have written letters to the committee. Even if they succeed in triggering a leadership ballot, the rebels first need to win a vote of no confidence in May among Conservative MPs. Unless they can present a credible and moderate alternative candidate, they won’t succeed. Tory members are cautious and loyalist by temperament—they are conservatives, after all—and won’t remove their leader if the only alternative is a fanatic promising to lead them off a “no deal” cliff. So far, no viable alternative candidate has been found.

This does not mean May is safe, however.

While her agreement meets Brussels’s demands on EU citizens’ rights, financial payments to the EU, and the Northern Irish border with Ireland, it’s the solution to the border problem that is causing the most difficulty.

The EU’s requirement is that the economy of Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., stay sufficiently aligned with that of the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU, to avoid the need for inspections along that politically sensitive border, required by both EU treaties and World Trade Organization trade law. This will be achieved at three levels.

The first is the so-called transition. During the transition, EU laws would continue to apply to the U.K., but British officials would no longer be able to participate in the EU institutions that make those laws. The agreement allows the period to be extended once, but likely not beyond 2022.

The second sets a minimum level of integration necessary for a long-term economic relationship. This would apply if the U.K. and EU do not negotiate something closer, such as a Norway-style membership of the single market. Under these provisions, the U.K. would stay in an effective customs union with the EU, which reduces but does not eliminate the need for regulatory inspections on goods crossing the Irish Sea between the island of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This, however, would prevent the U.K. from having an independent trade policy, because inspections can only be reduced if it agrees to impose the same external trade barriers as the EU. The agreement requires the U.K. to maintain environmental and employment regulations and refrain from making it easier to pollute and to use cheaper labor than in the EU.

The third, the “backstop,” kicks in if the U.K. chooses to leave the customs union. In that case, a customs border would be created in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, but the British government would be able to deregulate the labor market, ease environmental rules, and negotiate trade agreements with other nations on behalf of all parts of the United Kingdom except Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, by contrast, would be required to align its trade and economic regulation with the EU’s, in order to avoid a border on the island of Ireland.

The problem for May is that each of these three components of the proposed deal will alienate a crucial parliamentary constituency.

The DUP—whose chief whip has pointedly said that the agreement with May’s government is to support the Conservative Party’s administration, not the prime minister personally—is afraid that economic barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. will drive the province toward unification with the Republic of Ireland. The backstop is therefore anathema to them.

Free-market Brexiteers who voted to leave the EU so that the U.K. could develop its own trade policy generally oppose the customs union and prohibitions on deregulation. Unlike May, however, they’re not obsessively concerned about immigration. Under her deal, they would gain control over something they’re not overly worried about in exchange for tying their hands in areas where they want change. May’s attempt to win them over by telling the Confederation of British Industry that her deal would end freedom of movement between the U.K. and the EU, thereby creating labor shortages for British employers, thus appears to be another miscalculation.

And pro-Europeans find following European law but not having a say in making it intolerable. Perhaps as many as 10 Tories, including Jo Johnson, who resigned as a government minister earlier this month, and former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, have said they’ll vote against the deal, too. These members will be the hardest for May to win over, because every argument used to make the agreement acceptable to Euroskeptics will make the pro-Europeans even more determined to vote against it.

According to my conversations with people close to No. 10 Downing St., the government wants to peel off centrist members of the opposition Labour Party. These hopes will probably be dashed. Labour’s centrist Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, has concluded that the deal doesn’t meet the party’s six tests on which its support of any deal is contingent—that’s unsurprising, because he deliberately made them impossible to meet—while the Scottish Nationalists and Liberal Democrats have also said they would vote against it.

Though one or two Labour and Liberal Democratic MPs might be tempted to support May, most won’t be able to resist the temptation to vote against the government and stand a chance of toppling it. In normal circumstances, it’s hard to see how a government could continue after such a defeat.

But as any observer of British politics knows, these are not normal circumstances. Under Britain’s Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, if a government loses a vote of confidence, a general election must be called if 14 days elapse without the formation of a new government that can command a majority in the House of Commons. The DUP, which the government relies on for its majority, hopes to use its outsized influence to force the Tory party, whose sputtering rebels seem unable to get rid of May on their own, to throw her out. The DUP hopes that another ambitious Tory would then step in to take the country off a cliff in its hour of need; by resigning, the former Brexit Secretary Raab has put himself in pole position.

Since the Brexit deal was announced, polls have begun to show the Conservatives losing support to the far-right UK Independence Party, crucially putting the Tories behind Labour. If that trend continues, it will concentrate minds. To the fear of losing, Tory leadership hopefuls will be able to add a more high-minded argument: protecting the country from compounding the Brexit mess (for which they will blame May’s negotiating strategy) with an election that could bring Corbyn (the most extreme-left leader in Britain’s history) to power. For the party’s pro-Brexit majority, a Corbyn government would simply make things worse—without anything better to look forward to.

At the moment, Tory members of Parliament stand firmly behind their leader, but there is a chance they will ditch her if it’s the only way to avoid an early election they could well lose.

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy advisor to the British Conservative Party and the Executive Director of TRD Policy.

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