The Waugh Zone Wednesday December 12, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

In the end, the news came via the very 21st century format of a WhatsApp message, sent to all Tory MPs just after 7.30am. The speed with which the electrifying announcement spread certainly contrasted with the slow, old-fashioned process that has dominated to date. Under party rules, 48 hand-signed letters needed to be delivered to Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, in order to trigger a vote of no confidence. The first letters went in months ago, some years ago. Yet after several false dawns, the plotters’ day has finally arrived. As one Labour wag put it: “We will get a meaningful vote, after all, this week.”

And it is the haste of the contest, with a vote held between 6pm and 8pm tonight, that will take many by surprise. Brady announced that the 48-threshold had been reached last night and he communicated it “on the telephone” to Theresa May. He revealed on Radio 4 that she had been “very keen to resolve this as rapidly as possible and that’s something I was keen to facilitate, certainly before the London markets opened”. The Tory grandee also told us May’s reaction was “business like” and she was “keen to proceed as quickly as possible”.

After May addresses the 1922 Committee at 5pm, it’s make-your-mind-up-time for Tory MPs as they then take part in the secret ballot in Committee Room 14. In what looks like a coordinated show of support, a string of Cabinet ministers have tweeted that May should stay in post at a time of national uncertainty over Brexit. All Tory MPs are acutely aware that under party rules, if the PM wins she stays in post for a whole year before another challenge can be launched. This is their only shot of getting rid of her before the UK is scheduled to leave the EU on March 29, 2019.

The magic number is now not 48, but 158 – that’s the simple majority May needs to win. The speed of the contest could work in her favour as critics haven’t had a chance to come up with a clear candidate. But the thought of a whole year of more Mayism could be what swings it. On the steps of No.10, she repeated the same promises she’d made soon after being elected in 2016. Her critics will point out how little of those promises she’s kept. And that she’s the now the one ‘just about managing’ - to stay in power.

For many, the central flaw in David Cameron’s Brexit referendum was that it offered Britons a departure ticket without a destination. And today, as Theresa May faces an existential threat to her premiership, a similar flaw is evident in the Tory party’s leadership rules. MPs can get rid of May without having a replacement lined up. They can have their moment of ‘we’re free!’ cartharsis, but once the exhilarating whiff of liberation has faded, the realisation dawns that their leap of faith is a leap into the unknown. The instability and uncertainty of alternative options has been the threat that has kept May in power since her disastrous snap election. Yet for many of her MPs, May’s exit (can we call it Mexit?) is worth the risk.

After Tory backbenchers decided to ‘take back control’ of their party leadership, they will know that any replacement PM would face the exact same Parliamentary arithmetic and the exact same deadlock over Brexit. That arithmetic can only be changed by a general election, an election that many Tory MPs in marginal seats simply can’t countenance because of the real threat of Jeremy Corbyn running yet another poll-defying election campaign that could make him Prime Minister.

The Christmas chaos that this contest could provoke is obvious. It’s possible that under the newly centralised party membership system, a ballot could be held by email, but many members would want a postal vote. Add in hustings around the country, and it could be that it is the New Year before a contest could be realistically staged, May’s allies will war. That would mean May would stay on as ‘caretaker’ PM while her party picks a successor. When Owen Paterson was this morning asked when a new leader could be in place, he replied: “I would have thought mid-January…I’m not an expert.” Then again, maybe Britain has indeed had ‘enough’ of experts.

May said on the steps of No.10 that she would fight the challenge “with everything I’ve got”. Those who know her well say you’ll have to prize her fingers off the door of Downing Street to get her out. A majority of one is all she’ll take to stay on, unlike Mrs Thatcher (who quit when a large minority opposed her), some allies claim. When she gets up for PMQs, it will be one of the most extraordinary Parliamentary events of recent years.

Expect her to come out fighting against Jeremy Corbyn, ramming home the threat of him getting into No.10. But the faces of those behind her will be a sight to behold, not least as Corbyn can offer lessons in how to survive a coup by your own MPs (will he dare make that gag in front of his own troops?) Britons love our wartime ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ spirit and May has made plain she will dig in to the last. But Labour may point out that the Tories are now more a ‘Carry On’ comedy than a calming influence on the nation’s future.

Outside No.10 May herself played her trump card – warning that Brexit itself would be put at risk because it’s possible a Tory leader would not be in place for the January 21 ‘deadline’ by which a Brexit agreement had to be approved by Parliament. The real risk of a ‘no deal’ Brexit (the only credible plan any of her critics have come up with) is what may scare many middle-of-the-road MPs into backing her. But May’s central problem is that while her grasp of detail is admired, her negotiating skills are widely seen as dreadful. Some Brexiteers say she could have got more out of Brussels if she’d played hardball earlier. Others say that, like Cameron before her, May has found out the hard way that the EU really will never do the UK any favours.

Lots of Cabinet ministers have come out and tweeted or stated their support for May, most notable Sajid Javid, the man tipped as a real contender to replace her. Of course, ultra-loyalty right now has to be ministers’ main message or they would have to quit and no future leader wants to be seen as an assassin.

One extra test for May is not just her message to her party, but also to the DUP that keep her in power. Whoever leads the Tories has to somehow rebuild relations if a general election is to be avoided. But given that the Irish ‘backstop’ is at the heart of May’s Brexit woes, some MPs think the only way of satisfying the DUP is by backing a ‘managed no deal’ that dares the Irish government to erect a hard border. Never forget Arlene Foster and her party didn’t support Blair’s Good Friday Agreement. And Gerry Adams’ infamous line about the IRA - “they haven’t gone away, you know” - now applies to the DUP itself.

May was abroad in Europe while the plotters finally got their numbers last night. Watch this classic clip of when Margaret Thatcher was in Paris and got the news she too faced a rebellion back home. Despite the defiance, within days, she was gone.

Given the DUP’s key role in propping up, and pulling down, the PM, any news about its MPs takes on more significance than usual. BBC Northern Ireland reports that Ian Paisley was given a complimentary holiday at a luxury Maldives resort months after advocating on behalf of its government. The MP was recently suspended from the House of Commons for 30 days for ‘serious misconduct’ for failing to declare two family holidays to Sri Lanka in 2013. Could this lead to a further suspension, or even a fresh attempt to oust him?

The image of Westminster as not just a place for backstabbing MPs but also bullying and harassment will be further underlined with the news that Lord Lester has decided to quit. The 82-year-old peer accused of sexual harassment 12 years ago has resigned his seat, much to the relief of his Liberal Democrat party, which suspended him earlier this year. Lester had offered a woman a peerage if she would sleep with him. A Lords report found that he “had sexually harassed the complainant, had offered her a corrupt inducement to have sexual relations with her, and had warned her of unspecified consequences if she did not accept his offer”. Few are mourning his exit.

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