Will Theresa May make it to the summer recess? It’s just over a week until Parliament breaks up for the long summer break yet the obstacles the Prime Minister must overcome before then are rapidly increasing in size. After May finally showed her Brexit hand, she has seen a growing Eurosceptic rebellion which shows no signs of letting up anytime soon.
Over the weekend, her former minister Steve Baker accused No 10 of being part of a secret plot to render the Brexit department a ‘Potemkin structure to [distract from] what the Cabinet Office Europe unit was doing for the prime minister’. Meanwhile, Jacob Rees-Mogg offered a memorable soundbite – telling the Sunday Politics that May was a ‘Remainer who has remained a Remainer’. In the face of all this, Downing Street insist that they will not deviate from the Chequers plan as the Brexiteers want them to do. In an interview with Andrew Marr, May doubled down on her Brexit compromise. Not helping matters is the fact that Justine Greening – who had just last week praised the plan – is now calling for a second referendum on the grounds the deal pleases no-one.
So, with both sides refusing to budge, where does this leave the May premiership? There’s no shortage of blue-on-blue warfare and things have become even more choppy over the past few days. Tory MPs are returning from their constituencies today increasingly worried about the response May’s plan has received from voters. The number of letters sent to Graham Brady – chair of the 1922 committee – is rumoured to be close to the required 48, or at least that’s what a number of eurosceptic rebels are claiming. However, things may come to a head before the letters reach the magic number thanks to the trade bill which returns to the Commons Monday and Tuesday.
This week No 10 are seeking to stem two rebellions. Firstly, Remain rebels who wish to back an amendment which aims to force the government to negotiate a customs union. Secondly – and more recently – a Eurosceptic rebellion. Led by Baker – who is on the offensive and boasted of using Guerrilla tactics to campaign for Leave during the EU referendum – the group of Brexiteer MPs unhappy with her Chequers compromise are preparing to show May what they’re made of by voting for a series of ‘wrecking’ changes on the customs bill. These amendments are designed to halt the customs plan announced by May at Chequers nine days ago. May has tried to dissuade such rebels by warning that the changes would put at risk the government’s ‘no deal’ planning:
‘This could lead to a damaging and disorderly Brexit because without this Bill passing we would not be able to retain the benefits of more than 40 existing trade arrangements; and neither will we have the means to protect consumers, industries and workers from being undercut by unfairly traded goods in a post-Brexit Britain.’
The hope among the Eurosceptics – many of whom are in the European Research Group – is that their antics will force May to change course or risk a no-confidence vote before the summer recess. In the event of a no confidence vote, No 10 remain fairly confident that May would survive it. In fact, there’s even been talk of trying to bring one about sooner rather than later – while they have the numbers – as if May survives it, the rebels would have to wait a year to mount another.
But things are so febrile at the moment that it’s very hard to predict where the low party morale could lead. Add to this the fact that May’s rival Boris Johnson is due to make a speech in the Commons this week and it would seem rather premature to assume May will go into the summer holidays with a smile on her face.