Above: Photo by UNI
As the divorce nears, the prime minister is under attack from all quarters for the draft deal that has left Britain without a voice in the EU, but still subject to its trade laws
By Sajeda Momin in London
Prime Minister Theresa May appears to have the luck of the devil. Each time she faces a leadership crisis brought about by a rebellion from within the ranks of her own Conservative Party, she manages to hold on to her post by the skin of her teeth.
In the latest round of political machinations to remove her, two cabinet ministers, including Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, and several junior ministers resigned in protest against the exit deal May would like to strike with the European Union (EU), leaving her red-faced in Parliament. Moreover, senior Tories wrote letters to the chairman of the party claiming they had “no confidence” in May and urged a leadership contest.
After a week of turmoil, when it looked as if May’s days were numbered, Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, had received only 26 letters from Conservative MPs demanding May’s removal—22 short of the 48 such letters (15 percent of the parliamentary party) needed to trigger a leadership contest. It remains to be seen if any more MPs will write to Brady to take it to the magical figure, but for now it seems May has survived to fight yet another day.
The current crisis was set off by Raab, the very person whose job it was to defend the 585-page draft Brexit deal. He resigned on November 15 claiming that he “could not support the proposed deal in good conscience” and that May deserved “a Brexit secretary who can make the case for the deal you are pursuing with conviction”.
He was followed by the Indian-origin Shailesh Vara who resigned from his post as Northern Ireland minister, arguing that May’s Brexit deal “leaves the UK in a halfway house with no time limit on when we will finally be a sovereign nation”. Vara, a Gujarati who was born in Uganda, had voted “Remain” in the 2016 referendum that shockingly received a slim majority to “Leave” the EU, but like May had decided that the will of the people must be implemented.
As the day progressed, ministers fell like ninepins, putting a question mark on May’s government. She hurriedly addressed the nation through a live press conference at 10, Downing Street, urging MPs to support the deal “in the national interest”. “Leadership is about making the right decisions, not the easy decisions,” said a defiant May. When asked if she would contest any leadership challenge, she replied: “Am I going to see this through? Yes.”
In the House of Commons that day, May was attacked from all sides, but she stuck to her guns and said her deal would deliver the Brexit people had voted for and allow the UK to take back control of its “money, laws and borders”. May told Parliament: “The choice is clear. We can choose to leave with no deal, we can risk no Brexit at all, or we can choose to unite and support the best deal that can be negotiated.”
Ever since the referendum, the Conservative Party has been split between those who want to keep close economic ties with the bloc of 27 countries and somehow remain in the all-important single market in order to protect the British economy even as they leave the EU, while there are others who want a clean break. Negotiations between the UK and the EU have been confused and chaotic because Britain has been trying to get the best of both worlds. Many of May’s critics feel that the draft deal she has crafted has, in fact, got the worst of everything, leaving Britain without a voice in the EU, but still subject to many of its trade laws.
Even as May was speaking in Parliament, the knives were out as Tory MPs began writing to Brady demanding her resignation and a leadership contest. Jacob Rees-Mogg, an arch Brexiteer, was one of the first. In his letter, he wrote May’s Brexit deal “has turned out to be worse than anticipated and fails to meet the promises given to the nation by the prime minister, either on her own account or on behalf of us all in the Conservative Party manifesto”. Meetings were held by the Eurosceptics and promises made by MPs. However, a week later, the number of letters publicly submitted to Brady declaring no confidence in May reached only 26, well short of the tally needed, though it was alleged by the rebels that more had been submitted privately.
Critics of May did not hide their frustration and Steve Baker, the former Brexit minister and member of the European Research Group (ERG), who had been coordinating the letters campaign voiced his displeasure: “Who knows now what will happen? Will MPs do what they said?” It was obvious more Tories had promised to write to Brady than actually did. Tory rebel Simon Clarke said it was incumbent on those colleagues who had pledged to act against May to now do so.
“If we continue with this (Brexit) plan we are simply not going to have a government. It is quite clear to me that the captain is driving the ship at the rocks,” said Clarke.
May in her own defence has said that replacing her will not help deliver Brexit. “It is not going to make the (Brexit) negotiations any easier and it won’t change the parliamentary arithmetic,” she said.
May, of course, has her supporters as well, one of them being the new foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt. He has accused the rebels of bringing about “the most appalling chaos” by trying to remove May, which could destabilise the country and damage Britain’s international reputation. Earlier, Hunt said May had “perhaps got the most difficult job of any prime minister or president in the western world at the moment”.
Humiliated that their numbers have not swelled in the manner they had hoped, May’s critics are trying to put a brave face on the situation, saying they are being patient. Rees-Mogg, one of the ringleaders, suggested that more colleagues would follow if the prime minister loses the vote on her Brexit deal in Parliament. He has also warned the Tory party that if May is not replaced now, then she would lead them into the next general election, which, according to Rees-Mogg, would be disastrous.
The deadline for Britain’s exit is March 29, 2019, and May’s critics realise that they are running out of time. They accept that if she is not ousted by the end of December, she will carry on to conclude the Brexit process. The draft deal has to be ratified by parliament before May can actually take it to Brussels.
At present, there appears to be no parliamentary majority for the deal. Opposition parties and the government’s partners in the Democratic Unionist Party have said they will vote it down. It is very likely that Tory rebels will also not vote for it. This will force May to change the deal. Perhaps it will be then that the prime minister’s enemies in her own party will get what they want—forcing May to step down.