During the EU referendum of 2016, Brexiteers were very vocal in saying what they didn’t like about the EU, without setting out a detailed plan for what they would put in its place. Getting out or staying in were famously the only two choices on the ballot paper. And two years on, it is opposition not proposition that still has the upper hand in our Brexit future. To coin a phrase, nothing has changed.
Jacob Rees-Mogg’s group of backbench Eurosceptics have delayed publication of their own plans for Brexit. Yet a different kind of Moggy, the ‘dead cat’ strategy (you say something so outrageous that it’s all people focus on, like plonking a deceased feline on a table during dinner) was deployed by Boris Johnson this weekend. His Mail on Sunday article, comparing Theresa May’s Chequers deal to a ‘suicide vest’ strapped around the UK, seemed deliberately designed to distract the world from not only his alleged adultery and impending divorce, but also from the absence of a detailed alternative. It had the added bonus of showing that Johnson, not Rees-Mogg, was the leading Brexiteer in the referendum and wants to be the top dog today.
Mogg, Boris, David Davis and co will probably unveil their plans in coming weeks, but in many ways they know they don’t need to. Their numbers (ranging from 40 to 80 MPs), combined with Labour’s opposition to Chequers in its current form, means that May’s plans currently look doomed to fail in Parliament. That’s why talk of a lack of support for a leadership challenge is a sideshow: by voting down her Brexit deal, the wreckers can wreck May’s career without any formal vote of confidence. If her plans are defeated in the Commons, the assumption is she’d take the pearl-handled revolver and say ‘I’m done’.
What if No.10 tries to turn the Chequers deal into a confidence vote? In the crazy state of our current politics, it’s perfectly possible MPs could vote down Chequers yet May would instantly win a confidence vote as backbenchers don’t want to be seen bringing down their PM, or triggering a general election. With a majority of Parliament against a ‘no deal’ exit, an extension of Article 50 could be May’s only option. An unholy mess? You bet it is.
Still, May can at least be heartened by the way two of the big players who arguably led to the Brexit vote – the Daily Mail and the EU27 – today seem to be on her side. In its leader column, the post-Paul Dacre Mail describes Johnson as ‘reckless’ and hints again that Chequers is worth sticking with. The FT also reports the European Commission is set to hand Michel Barnier a new mandate to close a deal with May in time for this autumn. Note that last week he didn’t tell MPs Chequers was ‘dead in the water’. He said instead May’s trade plans were not acceptable ‘as they are’.
Should a leadership election take place, watch out for Sajid Javid. His response on Marr to Johnson’s suicide vest remarks were a model of restraint, almost Prime Ministerial. He wanted to see ‘measured language’ (like his), but defended Boris against the charge of Islamophobia. I’m told that Javid has so much support that he would almost certainly be on any ballot paper sent out to the wider membership, whereas Boris still lacks the MPs he needs to do the same.
Nicky Morgan on the Today programme said Boris ‘knew exactly what he was doing’ by deploying such ‘incendiary language’ – raising his profile as the chief rebel Brexiteer. Yet I was struck by how conciliatory she was towards Chequers, unlike some of her Remainer colleagues, saying while it was ‘not perfect’ she and others had a job to ‘support the government’. She also said there was ‘a majority in Parliament’ for a Norway-style deal. That may be so, but it’s far from clear that Labour would back one, given it would prefer to see the chaos of a Tory leadership challenge and a possible general election.
Morgan writes for ConHome that next month’s Tory conference speech has to kill off the Maybot – but only in style, not in person: “We need to see the Prime Minister who danced and smiled in South Africa delivering it – not the PMQs version”. But Boris knows his can-can on the fringe will get the crowd on its feet. With or without an alternative plan. Today, we are exactly 200 days from Brexit, and we still have no clear idea what it will eventually look like.