The ‘Conservative’ Party’s Brexiteers have so far flattered only to deceive. Instead of weakening or thwarting May’s betrayal of the Brexit vote, they have instead weakened mainly their own position, and effectiveness.
Note: this is the longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Monday 19th November 2018
So, at long last, something did actually happen – even if it now looks likely to un-happen.
After months of periodic elegantly-phrased, impeccably-modulated, but ultimately unfulfilled threats to initiate the defenestration of Theresa May, routinely larded with excessively-deferential banalities along the lines of “Mrs May is an honourable Prime Minister, who can be persuaded to change her mind” – when it would have been obvious even from the far side of Mars that neither statement was true – Jacob Rees-Mogg, de facto leader of the ‘Conservative’ Party’s so-called Brexit Rebels in the backbench European Research Group, on Thursday last finally submitted his much-trailed Letter Of No Confidence in Theresa May to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee.
Goodness knows, it was long enough in the gestation. From the beginning of July, when the scale of both the extent and duplicity of May’s Brexit betrayal – of which her infamous Chequers Summit turned out to be merely the start – began to become apparent, the Rebels have repeatedly threatened, only to resile. It seemed that Rees-Mogg et al would forever huff and puff but never quite get round to actually trying to blow the May House down until it was too late, if at all.
“Brexiteers give May a two-month stay of execution”, reported The Times on 6th September. “Theresa May must change her Brexit strategy now, or risk her own Black Wednesday”, fulminated Rees-Mogg in The Daily Telegraph on 20th October. And even more recently, the Group’s organiser, Steve Baker, withdrew an amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill in the House of Commons, the effect of which would have been to make any backstop in the EU Withdrawal Agreement illegal.
It hasn’t been, and it won’t be, enough. The old adage “he who hesitates is lost” may well remain true: only in this case, it’s the so-called Tory Brexit Rebels who have hesitated, but it’s we who will have lost.
First, simple tactics. Whether the Rebels actually wanted Rees-Mogg’s letter to be the decisive one which hit the magic number of 48 needed to trigger the Vote Of No Confidence in May is uncertain, but in the event, it seems that it wasn’t, because rumour had it, and it has now been confirmed, that the necessary 48 letters have so far still not been received. If they aren’t, then that crowded Rees-Mogg press conference outside St Stephen’s Entrance to Parliament on Friday is going to look premature at best, and futile at worst.
How much better would it have been, tactically, to have waited a few days, certainly until after May’s predictably unimpressive, even mendacious, performance on Sky News’ Ridge On Sunday yesterday, and then try to ensure as far as possible that Rees-Mogg’s was the letter whose submission was the 48th, and thus triggered the vote. That would have had far more impact.
Next, the Parliamentary arithmetic for a vote of no confidence in May remains essentially unchanged from when I described it earlier in the year. It might even have tightened slightly in May’s favour, from a combination of the careerist payroll-vote which a sitting PM can usually rely on for support, and the fear among even some Leave-voting MPs that removing May could precipitate a General Election which could well bring about not only the loss of their own seats but probably the decimation and possibly even the near-destruction of their party.
Remember, prioritising the survival of their party over the interests of the country, and even of sovereignty and democracy itself, is embedded deep within Tory MPs’ DNA.
Finally, it’s arguable, and becoming more so by the day as the 48 letters fail to materialise, that, instead of going for a Vote Of No Confidence, which means that May would be untouchable for another year if she survives it – and God only knows what further damage she will do if that happens – concentrating on defeating her egregious Soft-Remain, BRINO-Deal on the floor of the House of Commons stands a better chance of bringing about her demise as Tory Leader and PM.
It was Iain Martin, of The Times and Reaction, who first raised this rather more intriguing and subtle possibility last Friday. . .
. . . but it has been swiftly followed by others.
“The Tories need to bide their time before toppling Mrs May“, wrote Iain Dale, arguing persuasively that the failure of the requisite 48 letters to be submitted has reduced the likelihood of a challenge to May, and therefore to her damaging and rightly unpopular (Non)-Brexit Deal, being successful by that route, and would have been higher had they waited until her deal was defeated in the Commons.
Paradoxically, by disclosing their (weaker than both claimed and thought) hand in advance, they may have swung a few potentially-crucial votes behind her deal from Tory MPs who want to see her deal ditched, but not necessarily her – although how she could survive the rejection by the House of a deal in which she’s invested so much personal and political capital is hard to see. But the Rebels have certainly muddied the waters.
Significantly, some senior staunch Brexiteers, notably Iain Duncan Smith, Bernard Jenkin and Owen Paterson, appear not to have joined the ranks of letter-submitters, perhaps keeping their powder dry for the coming House of Commons battle. That, plus the number of letters falling short, has predictably initiated a flurry of recriminations, so that the backbench move to oust May appears, temporarily at least, to have stalled.
Now consider the so-called “Cabinet Brexiteers”. Their “We will stay in Cabinet and continue to press the PM to change her approach from inside” position has looked increasingly unconvincing and self-serving since Boris Johnson, David Davis and Steve Baker all resigned from the Government in the wake of the Chequers Summit. But it’s surely now been rendered all but untenable with the publication of May’s draft Withdrawal Agreement and the substantial backlash against it.
Yet at the time of writing, only Dominic Raab and Esther McVey have resigned in protest at it, declaring that they cannot in all conscience support it, along with a slew of more junior ministers and PPS’s.
Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Penny Mordaunt and Liam Fox, having previously hinted they would back whatever deal May concluded “as it won’t get through the Commons anyway”, will now, we are told, form a “Brexit Caucus” inside Cabinet “to lobby May to renegotiate the draft text”.
To which one might reasonably ask in response: just what the hell have you been doing there until now, then, if not precisely that? These aptly-labelled “Fatuous Five” are now irretrievably complicit in May’ deceptions, and have lost all credibility.
Gove, in my view, lost his some time ago. That impression has only been heightened by his demanding the freedom to change Government Brexit policy as a condition of accepting May’s offer of the Brexit Secretary role in place of Raab, only to back down when rebuffed, not resign, and agree to stay in Cabinet as DEFRA Secretary to support May in selling the very deal he demanded the freedom to change. He is beyond the Pale.
Fox, having at one time been the most ardent of ardent Brexiteers, has gone one better. Not only will he not resign. Not only will he stay in Cabinet to support May as International Trade Secretary, despite being prevented by the terms of her (Non)-Brexit deal from actually concluding any international trade deals. He managed to confirm his status as a unprincipled, hypocritical turncoat by penning a sycophantic defence of May, of the generality of her deal, and of course of his own continuing presence in Cabinet to assist her in persuading the EU to ameliorate its more punitive provisions.
Despite a worrying tendency to pander to the left-‘liberal’ PC-SJW agenda, I had expected more of Mordaunt: at least until she started bargaining with May to be able remain in Cabinet but vote against May’s deal in the Commons, which looked like a classic case of wanting her cake and eating it. She has not resigned either.
As for Grayling and Leadsom, they now appear to be limited to bleating implausibly that they can still thwart or at least modify May’s (non)-Brexit deal from the inside, principally, presumably so as to hang on to their red boxes & ministerial limousines, without which they are nothing.
It need not have been like this. Right from the Chequers Summit, there were avenues open to the so-called Brexit Rebels to not only register but manifest their opposition. There are several courses of action they could have taken. They could have voted down, not just abstained on, Government Bills. They could have voted down the Budget, which would almost certainly have been politically-fatal for May.
There are several course of action they could still take. They could repudiate the Tory Whip and caucus instead as Independent Brexit Conservatives. They could resign and trigger by-elections. They could threaten to support Labour in a full No-Confidence motion. They could even split off into a new pro-Brexit Real Conservative Party (which, frankly, would be justified anyway, even if Brexit did not exist, because of May’s continuing conduct of her ministry as if it was a third-rate Tony Blair-Ed Miliband tribute-act).
Any or all of those could certainly force her out. Sitting on their hands and hoping for something to turn up won’t. The so-called Brexit Rebels, inside and outside Cabinet, have bungled it, and handed the initiative to May – almost to the extent of making one wonder whether they have in fact functioned as a controlled opposition, all along. After all, acquiring or clinging to office, and ensuring the survival of their party, is what motivates the allegedly ‘Conservative’ Party above all else, so it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility.
Though I have no doubt that if, by 2032, Britain is still locked into in the EU, only more so than now, and additionally has been forced sign up to Schengen and adopt the euro, Jacob Rees-Mogg will be very cross indeed and may even go so far as to write another strongly-worded letter. He may even send it at the right time, and not prematurely.
But I may be being too harsh. There’s perhaps a tragic naiveté about a politician like Jacob Rees-Mogg – believing that his Parliamentary Party has any principles beyond individual members’ personal ambition and collective survival at whatever cost in political credibility. Theresa May, in contrast, as someone who is entirely cynical, devious and unprincipled, understands that it does not and never will have – and exploits it to the full.
It used to be axiomatic in business to under-promise but over-deliver. Politicians, by definition, do the exact opposite. But the so-called Tory Brexit Rebels have made it into an art form. They are turning out to be men and women of straw. Paper Tigers indeed.
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