The future of Britain may be determined by just 60 or so anti-EU Conservative MPs. The referendum delivered a leave the EU verdict, but it is this core group that insists on shaping what this means in reality to the hardest variant of Brexit.
Defenestrating the PM is for them merely a matter of when not if. May was described as a “dead woman walking” last June, but now she is stumbling, and for some, crawling to the exit door, her political coffin ready and waiting. The Conservative Party has rarely been kind to its leaders, and May is no exception.
The latest knife-sharpening is a response to rumors that she may favor Britain remaining in some form of a customs union with the EU, which Downing Street “categorically” denied on Monday. May has expressed a desire for a deal on trade with Europe that is “as frictionless as possible,” while her Home Secretary Amber Rudd says just “frictionless.” But International Trade Minister Liam Fox would almost certainly resign at the merest sniff of any customs union as this would not be the independent trade policy that Brexiteers dream of.
May is not the only one under attack. Arch-Brexiteers have also lashed out against the civil service, in particular the Treasury, claiming, with scant evidence, that they have been “fiddling the figures” in leaked impact assessments that indicate Britain would lose between 2 and 8 percent of growth over 15 years because of Brexit. Is launching this attack, which was described by one former senior mandarin as being worthy of 1930s Germany, a sign of desperation? Or is it overconfidence that, no matter what the experts say, Brexit will always be best? Another former civil servant was equally caustic, saying: “If you’re selling snake oil, you don’t like the idea of experts testing your product.”
The first option for the Brexiteers is an immediate challenge to May. To trigger a leadership election in the Tory party, 48 MPs have to sign letters calling for it. The rumor mill suggests that the number has crossed 40, and even a senior minister is ready to abandon the government to join the rebellion. Whilst achieving this number is conceivable, many will hold back. As the EU and Britain are on the verge of determining the endgame for their negotiations, wiser and cooler heads are arguing this is not the moment.
British PM must drop her intuitive caution and secrecy — only by staking out her Brexit position with zest and clarity does she stand a chance of seeing off the challenges to her leadership from within her own party.
May also has to watch out for May. Local election results that month, not least in key metropolitan areas such as London, could well be crucial. A trouncing in these polls and the momentum for change at the top will be unstoppable.
The other touted option is a challenge at the end of summer or in the autumn. The EU insists it needs to finish negotiations by the end of October to allow time for the EU Parliament to vote on the outcome. Keeping May at the helm for longer has the advantage of delaying the inevitable bloodletting that a leadership campaign will entail until a more opportune moment. For the young or less experienced pretenders, May’s survival works in their favor. Of those itching for the top spot, it is the older generation who may be more impatient.
Watching intently are European leaders, who are preparing for such eventualities as May’s departure and even another general election. They are frustrated, like so many, at the British government’s dysfunctional malaise.
Critics of May do not just point to her Brexit woes and lack of clarity on the EU. Many feel that the government has no other agenda and shows no energy or boldness for reform in other areas, such as social mobility or health. Brexit has sucked all of the energy out of this government.
What can May do? Her options are shrinking, not least as the largest opposition party, Labour, persists in its own haze of creative ambiguity, trying to appeal to all wings of its own divided party. May has to drop her intuitive caution and secrecy — timidity is simply not an option. Only by staking out her own position with zest and clarity does she stand a chance of seeing this out; for now at least. Two key meetings of the cabinet’s Brexit subcommittee this week should be that moment. She will have to face down opponents, calm the infighting and mold a coherent common government position that carries both her party and the country. Survival would be some achievement.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University.