‘I used to worry that something bad would happen, now I worry that something catastrophic will happen.’ This is how a Cabinet minister sums up the new political crisis facing the Conservative party – and soon the country.
Last night one such catastrophe was narrowly avoided. The government managed to defeat the Tory rebel amendment calling for a customs union if frictionless trade was not agreed by January. Had they lost it, Theresa May’s Brexit strategy would be dead in the water and the Whips allege that a confidence vote would have been brought – and an early election loom. The reason May avoided this fate? Labour rebels came to her rescue.
As I say in today’s i paper, the Tories are currently operating in a ‘least worst option’ world in which no-one can agree what the least worst option is. ‘There’s a last days of Rome feel to things,’ sighs one worn down government official. In the Commons’ tearoom, bad tempered conversations on the merits of ‘no deal’ are the order of the day and talk is rife that the number of letters sent to Graham Brady – chair of the 1922 committee – calling for a ‘no confidence’ vote is perilously close to the required 48. This was No 10’s motivation for an early holiday when they tried – and failed – to get the House to rise this Thursday rather than next Tuesday. If Parliament isn’t technically sitting, no vote can take place.
The customs bill victory should be enough to get May over the line and into the summer holidays. But what is the long term strategy? Currently the aim is to get through the day. The Downing Street solution to all this is to get to the long summer break and hope things cool down. With some time away from Westminster, No 10 hope that MPs will calm themselves and get some perspective on their Brexit woes. A refreshed party will return in September and rally behind the Prime Minister.
This is wishful thinking at best. May is facing her biggest crisis since the snap election and if she is to cling on, drastic action is required. With the Tories slipping back in the polls and MPs tearing their hair out over Brexit, the Prime Minister must work out how to convey to the public that she is their best chance of delivering a smooth and orderly Brexit.
It’s not enough to do one appearance on the Andrew Marr sofa and call it quits. Rather than go on a walking holiday, May should spend her summer trying to sell her Brexit plans to the public. Many of the Tory MPs currently rebelling and trying to undermine May are those who represent Leave constituencies where voters are worried they are being sold out. Instead of threatening these MPs with reduced campaigning funds – as has been reported – the Prime Minister should go there and hold town hall meetings. She should talk to voters directly about why she thinks this is the best route to Brexit.
If May wants to stop the haemorrhaging of support, now is the time to for her to lay down some hard truths about why she has come to this decision. It’s clear from the snap election that May doesn’t relish multiple TV appearances or press runs but if she wants to continue in her role she has little choice but to try a new tack and win people round. It’s clear that two sides of her party are completely irreconcilable on Brexit. Rather than spend her time trying to unite them, she should focus on the people they represent. If voters are behind May, it’s much harder for their Parliamentary representative to be against.