1. GOING NOWHERE, FAST
Just how long has she got left? Hours, days, or weeks? After Andrea Leadsom became the 36th minister to quit Theresa May’s government last night, the only question is when the PM will follow suit and finally resign from the office she has held for nearly three years. As of this morning, she’s still dug into the No.10 bunker and sounding defiant.
May is expected to meet foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt today to discuss his concerns about her latest Brexit offer to Labour, but it’s highly unlikely she will shift her position on the day of the European elections. Hunt has announced May will at least still be in place for the Trump visit next month. Many Tory MPs think that tomorrow is the real showdown, when she’ll give Sir Graham Brady what he and some backbenchers have long demanded: a precise exit date.
But not so fast. The word from May’s allies is that Sir Graham and the executive of the backbench 1922 Committee have once again ‘over-interpreted’ May’s intentions. When chief whip Julian Smith spent all of two minutes briefing the grandees yesterday, he made clear she ‘wasn’t going anywhere’ last night. And the only promise was that May would meet Brady on Friday to discuss the ‘timetable’ for her departure, not that she would give a date.
Much more significantly, before the PM meets Brady, she will go ahead and publish the very piece of Brexit legislation that her party sees as so toxic: the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB). In the chamber yesterday, she was punchier than ever and certainly didn’t sound like the ‘tearful’ figure that many newspapers have chosen to depict her as this morning.*
Junior government whip Mark Spencer this morning gets the job that Leadsom couldn’t bear, and will announce the Commons business for coming days that will include publication of the WAB. The plan remains that the bill will get its first and second reading in the week that Donald Trump arrives for his State Visit in early June. Some Cabinet Office sources suggested yesterday a fallback plan of David Lidington becoming ‘interim PM’ for the Trump visit, in case May was forced out swiftly, but even her enemies think she should be allowed the dignity of hosting the President.
*Footnote: One female Labour MP told me yesterday of their dismay at May’s front-page treatment with all those ‘gurning’ photos. “I’m no friend of hers, but the way the papers use the worst pictures of her is appalling.” But that’s for another day.
2. THE NUMBERS GAME
The fact remains that May is beyond humiliation now. Leadsom’s lone resignation is hardly the stuff that brings down prime ministers, if it is not accompanied by similar action by colleagues. And as I wrote in my piece last night, yesterday was the-coup-that-wasn’t-a-coup. Leadsom’s walk-out felt like an ending without a plot, in both senses of the word. Yes, there was a common anger among the ‘Pizza Club’ group of ministers, but their meeting broke up without consensus. David Mundell, Sajid Javid and Penny Mordaunt each then did their own thing, requesting meetings with the PM, without coordination.
As for the substance, No.10 is pushing back very firmly against claims that ministers were somehow misled or their Tuesday discussion on the Brexit plan had been somehow misrepresented by May in her big speech in Charing Cross later that day. But some ministers think the real problem was the complexity and opacity of the proposal to insert the second referendum and temporary customs union onto the face of the bill. The votes were guaranteed by the legislation but at the same time not part of it.
May has weathered the resignations of Brexit secretaries David Davis and Dominic Raab, as well as Boris Johnson’s as foreign secretary. If there had been a genuine joint walkout yesterday by Michael Gove, Liz Truss, Leadsom, Mordaunt and Javid, then of course May’s position would be untenable. But there was no such coordination, largely because each has their own eye on the leadership and have to square off their supporters before each other.
A clutch of more junior ministers did indeed try to coordinate, telling the chief whip May had to go (I was told they want to quit en masse on Monday, after the Euro results). Yet they too risked being seen to wield the knife for their favoured leadership candidate. Education minister Nadhim Zahawi actually goes public in the Sun, revealing ‘We decided to act.’ But Zahawi is also recently on record as backing Dominic Raab (having decided Boris Johnson could not unite the party). Tom Tugendhat, a ‘new’ opponent of the PM, revealed on Sky that he was backing Michael Gove.
If May really decides to dig in, she could of course tell MPs to do their worst in a vote of confidence. Last year, there were 117 votes against her and 200 for. Her allies point out that among those who came out publicly yesterday, almost all of them were already in the 117 camp. One old hand says that the 117 includes most of the rival leadership campaigns, while many middle-of-the-road MPs are uncommitted. Still, with few MPs coming out to back May’s dangerous compromise, she would have to work hard to get 200 MPs on board once more.
Yesterday, one member of May’s team confided just why she couldn’t woo the DUP with a final attempt to reopen talks with Brussels on the backstop: she had signed up to the EU’s extension to October 31 on the condition that she would not reopen the deal. Renegotiation was therefore “just not an option for her”. Tellingly, the source added: “Another leader could try it…” It’s not guaranteed any more success (Europeans rarely respond to the English habit of shouting louder to make them understand our language), but a new dynamic may buy the Tory party some more time until an election.
On one level, May quitting or setting a date for her exit on Friday makes no sense because we won’t know the results of the Euro elections until the early hours of Monday morning (under EU law, we cannot release our results until the rest of Europe has finished voting at 10pm on Sunday). At least on Monday, the scale of the Nigel Farage revolt will be clear in black and white.
Some Mayite ultras argue that the party is heading for a needless nervous breakdown over The Brexit Party. They point out this is a fantasy poll and that within a year of Farage last winning another ‘free hit’ election (the 2014 euros), David Cameron romped home in a general election. It’s far from clear that Farage would be able to sustain his party in a general election, sceptics say. They argue Labour has as much to fear in some of its seats. As Jacob Rees-Mogg argued on Peston last night, the Brexit Party could be a ‘one hit wonder’.
But many other Tories fear that the big difference this time is the resurgent Lib Dems. In Tory seats in the south, Conservative Remain voters could flock to the safety of the Libs while its Brexiteers head for the party whose name is on the tin. In Labour-Tory marginals, the split Tory vote could let Labour in. And the idea of a Jeremy Corbyn government looms closer.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch former Tory party chairman Lord Patten give his verdict on Boris Johnson: “He has lied his way through life. He’s lied his way through politics. He’s a huckster with a degree of charm to which I am immune.” The Bloomberg interview clip has been shared widely among Raab and Gove supporters.
4. THE CABLE GUY
One London Labour MP out canvassing yesterday told me that while their local council estates were still ‘solid’ for Labour, the party’s middle class voters were so ‘upset with Jeremy’ over a second referendum that they were going over to the Lib Dems and Greens in ‘big numbers’. If Corbyn can’t persuade Remainers in his party in the capital, he’ll have a huge job outside it. If Labour goes down to just two seats in London, it will mean once again that Corybn’s long-time ally and former MP Katy Clark (No.3 on the list) has missed out on a return to public office. If it goes down to one seat, Labour’s deputy MEP leader Seb Dance will lose too.
Yesterday, Vince Cable stuck the boot into Change UK, who were of course founded to capitalise on Remainer anger in the European elections. He told HufffPost the new party had got it “embarrassingly wrong’ in failing to work with his party. Meanwhile, the CHUK chaos continued last night as Channnel 4 News revealed acting leader Heidi Allen had threatened to resign because her colleagues disagreed with her over her support for tactical voting in the Euro elections.
5. YOUNG ’UNS, GO FOR IT
For a group of young voters, the European elections represent much more than just an opportunity to vent their frustrations with Westminster – it’s the very first time they will be able to have their say. At the time of the EU referendum in June 2016 around 1.46 million 16- and 17-year-olds just missed out on helping to decide whether the country should leave or remain. We talked to the first-time voters backing each of the main parties.
(Infographic supplied by Statista)
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