It’s the night before the Chequers summit and it’s all starting to kick off. After James revealed on Coffee House that the key Brexit customs paper passed by No 10 to Cabinet Ministers ahead of tomorrow’s meeting could be perceived as effectively ruling out a post-Brexit trade deal with the US, Brexiteers have been quick to see red.
Right on cue, Jacob Rees-Mogg has said that if May’s proposal is as reported it spells vassal state. The Brexit Secretary has written a letter to the Prime Minister outlining his problems with the government approach. Meanwhile, 46 Tory MPs – including 11 former cabinet ministers – have written to Theresa May, urging her to listen to business ahead of her crucial Chequers meeting on Friday.
It’s clear that a compromise that will unite the Conservative party is nigh on impossible. The question that remains: how big will the backlash be? Although members of the European Research Group are becoming increasingly noisy in their criticism of the No 10 approach, a calculation has been made by Downing Street that the bulk of the party will support a softer type of Brexit so long as Britain leaves the EU.
So, as one such Tory put to me earlier, how many Conservative MPs would actually go into kamikaze mode if thy don’t like the deal proposed? A lot could be down to whether there are any Cabinet resignations. It’s conceivable that 48 MPs would fire off a letter to the chairman of the 1922 committee in protest of the Prime Minister’s Chequers plans. But it’s very likely that she would survive that confidence vote. MPs from across the spectrum have been going public with calls to support May this week – and Rees-Mogg has been widely criticised for stirring up trouble. What’s more, under party rules, MPs would have to wait a whole year to attempt another no confidence vote in the leader.
Of course, that couldn’t stop put-out MPs making life very difficult for May. With a tiny working majority, if just 10 MPs started misbehaving the government could grind to a halt. They could also try and bring the government down in the Budget. But would many MPs really contemplate such a move? It would be an act of self-destruction. The argument against this goes that a lot of the ERG members are ambitious, they wouldn’t want the whip removed. And it’s not where the main mood of the party is.
The bulk of the party – including a chunk of Brexiteer MPs who are seen as having a Michael Gove mindset – are willing to swallow things they don’t like on the condition that we just get out. As one put it last night: Want to know why divorce is so expensive? Because it’s worth it.
How difficult life for Theresa May gets depends on the number who agree with that sentiment. And what could prove the deciding factor is not May’s third way per se but how Brussels responds to it. If the Prime Minister’s proposals were rejected out of hand and a Norway deal all that’s on the table, the number of MPs urging a rethink in No 10 would increase significantly.