Some things never change. It’s the end of the first week of the new term and the Conservatives are finishing it with a row about Brexit. Although there are several rows currently brewing on Brexit – from amendments to the EU (withdrawal) bill to David Davis’s ‘stability’ – the one that is giving the Prime Minister the biggest headache involves a letter and a minister.
The letter – thought to have been destined for the Sunday Telegraph – says that Britain should not pay into the EU budget during a transition period and must be able to sign trade deals straight after Brexit. These demands go further than current government policy and it has been circulated among Brexit-backing Tories, with dozens said to have signed it so far.
A particular sore point is that Steve Baker, a minister in the Brexit department, and Suella Fernandes, an aide to the chancellor, intervened on a private online messaging group that encouraged MPs to sign the letter. As they are in government this has been seen as a breach of responsibility and, the Times reports that, May is being urged by pro-Remain MPs to sack them for misconduct.
However, even if May wanted to do this (it remains up for discussion whether the ‘crime’ committed deserves this level of punishment), it’s hard to see how she could. When May moved Baker into government it was a sign that she thought he was of more use keeping Leave MPs on side from the inside rather than the outside. The Eurosceptic MP – and former chair of the European Research Group – was instrumental to the Leave campaign wherehe was deployed by Vote Leave as a ‘flying monkey’ to turn up the ‘pressure on David Cameron’ from the backbenches. Baker impressed by managing to get Tory Eurosceptics organised behind a common position.
Part of the thinking behind giving Baker a ministerial role was that it would mean he was less likely to rebel or organise a rebellion in the Commons. The fact that he feels able to still dabble in these matters shows that May’s authority remains weak. Likewise, when Suella Fernandes – who succeeded Baker as chair of the European Research Group – was promoted to the Treasury, there was expectation that she would give up the chairmanship. She didn’t.
Sending either of the two to the backbenches now would be a risky move. It would only stir up anger among the Brexit wing of the party – and increase the chance of a rebellion if MPs decide Brexit is being watered down. The fact that May’s best option is to let ministers go off message is a reminder that despite all the talk of the party uniting behind her, her position remains weak.