After PMQs today, Theresa May will rush back to Downing Street to chair a meeting of the Brexit inner Cabinet. This meeting will take place against a backdrop of heightened Tory infighting over Europe. This isn’t being caused by the Cabinet, who have been fairly well behaved in recent days, but the backbenches.
May’s problem is that both wings of the Tory party think that her policy is, to a certain extent, equidistant between them. So, whenever one side ratchets up the rhetoric, the other feels obliged to follow suit.
Since Jacob Rees-Mogg took over as chair of the European Research Group, the main Brexiteer group in the Tory party, it has taken a far more confrontational approach to the government. Rather than putting the best gloss on May’s compromises, it is instead warning of the UK becoming a vassal state and the like. Now this is in part, as Rees-Mogg came close to admitting, because the ERG wants to get something on the ‘end state’ in exchange for accepting the terms of transition. But this heightened rhetoric has drawn a reaction from the other side; culminating in Anna Soubry’s demand that the ERG-lot be thrown out of the party.
Keeping the Tory party together over the next few years is not going to be easy. The final Tory battle over Europe may well be the bloodiest. But I do think that if May gave a clearer lead some of these tensions would ease. The two factions would feel less inclined to jump up and down on their end of the see-saw if they felt that May had made up her mind.