If last week was ‘hell week’ for Theresa May, the next few days could be classed as the Prime Minister’s trip to the ninth circle. With problems over the Irish border backstop unsolved, No 10 are fighting fire on multiple fronts ahead of a crucial EU Council meeting on Wednesday. The papers are filled with Cabinet resignation threats, rumoured leadership bids and a warning from the DUP that ‘no deal’ is now the most likely outcome. The Sunday Times puts the number of no confidence letters with 1922 chair Graham Brady at 44 – if four more go in a confidence vote will follow. Should that come to be and May lose, David Davis is now being talked up (once again) as a caretaker PM over Boris Johnson.
A report in the German press suggesting UK/EU negotiators would today finalise the withdrawal agreement has fuelled Brexiteer concerns that May is trying to bounce her Cabinet into an unsatisfactory Brexit position. No 10 strongly deny the claims but Dominic Raab is in Brussels as of this afternoon in a bid to try and resolve ‘several big issues’ including the Northern Ireland backstop. The most troublesome issues are 1. the scope of the backstop and whether it treats Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK 2. how to make he backstop time-limited. If sufficient progress has not been made by this week’s October European Council, then the EU has reportedly drawn up plans for a special ‘no deal’ meeting next month.
However, May’s most pressing problem is that what ever her negotiators agree with Brussels, she has to then sell to her Cabinet and her party. All the signs so far suggest that if the agreement is close to its current form there will be Cabinet resignations and a backbench rebellion. There is widespread unease far beyond the European Research Group about signing up to a backstop which would let the EU control when the UK left the arrangement. Getting a deal through Parliament will start to look near impossible if the number of Tory MPs who oppose the agreement rises by even a handful. Meanwhile, the DUP continue to cause Theresa May a headache. Unsatisfied with No 10’s assurances on the Irish border, Arlene Foster’s party are concerned that Northern Ireland would be treated differently to the rest of the UK under the backstop – thereby breaching her one red line. If that happens, the confidence-and-supply agreement could be toast.
Of course Theresa May has found herself in very challenging situations before but with the Prime Minister all out of Brexit fudge, the next few days could be her most difficult yet. If events escalate and tempers flare a confidence vote cannot be ruled out.