Conservatives in open revolt against PM May’s Brexit plan
The term “men in grey suits” evokes fear for any Conservative Party leader, but to the embattled Theresa May it must conjure absolute horror. The shadowy 1922 Committee, formally known as the Conservative Private Members’ Committee, assembles weekly when Parliament is in session. It oversees the election of party leaders or any Conservative Party-led vote of no confidence in a sitting leader. Such a vote was triggered most recently against May last December, but the prime minister won the vote. Dramatized during the fall of Margaret Thatcher, the group’s reappearance at key junctures in the Brexit saga has drawn great interest.
May is facing fresh demands from her own MPs to stand down immediately after senior backbenchers told her she is now “the problem.” A delegation of executives from the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers met her on Monday and said the mood among party supporters had turned against her over the weekend. It is understood that May sat in stony silence and refused to discuss her future as the MPs outlined the “damage” she is causing the party. With the ruling party so divided during Britain’s most severe peacetime crisis, the government is visibly crippled as it seeks to extract the country from the EU.
Having previously said it would be unacceptable for the UK to take part in next month’s European elections, which take place almost three years after the vote to leave the EU, the PM is facing an explosive backlash from all ranks of her party, as another Brexit delay and a role in those elections looks increasingly likely. Conservative HQ confirmed the fears of many members, MPs and ministers when it opened applications for candidates from the party for “contesting the European elections on 23rd May.”
Leave elements of the party are already up in arms over the government’s perceived softening of Brexit, especially given its liaison with the Labour Party to try and break the parliamentary impasse, and the very real possibility of the PM agreeing to a customs union with tariffs set by the EU, which could inhibit other future UK trade deals. With the Conservative Party clearly split over the issue, a letter sent to MPs by Cabinet Office minister David Lidington and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox explained why they had been forced to commence the legislation for the EU poll. “It should be clear to all Members of Parliament that asking the public to take part in elections for an organization that they voted to leave three years ago would damage trust in politics,” it said.
The split within the party was highlighted further on Tuesday afternoon, when Parliament voted to delay Brexit until the end of June. Tellingly, nearly a third of Conservative MPs rebelled against May’s plan to delay Brexit, making her weakening grip on the party plain for all to see. Following calls by President of the European Council Donald Tusk for EU leaders to offer the UK a flexible extension to the Article 50 process of up to one year, the House of Commons backed May’s proposal to push back the UK’s scheduled departure from the bloc from April 12 to June 30 by 420 votes to 110. But May was left facing open revolt ahead of Wednesday’s EU Summit. The vote was required by law after Parliament rushed through legislation to prevent a no-deal Brexit this Friday. This highlighted how Conservative divisions will almost certainly deepen if EU leaders finalize a Brexit delay well beyond June 30.
Nearly a third of Conservative MPs rebelled against May’s plan to delay Brexit, making her weakening grip on the party plain for all to see.
Zaid M. Belbagi
As the prime minister considers making major concessions to Labour, including a customs union and the right for the opposition to influence future talks, so as to secure backing for a final deal, the Conservative Party is at real risk of fracturing. Following the resignations of many key members of the government and the establishment of the Independent Group, which is currently made up of eight former Labour and three ex-Tory MPs, there is growing speculation of other similar breakaway groupings.
Spectacularly, and in a sign of Euroskeptic Tory frustration with May’s failed attempts to secure a Brexit deal, one rebel, Tim Loughton, appealed to Germany’s Angela Merkel and other EU leaders to block May’s request for another Brexit delay, instead forcing the UK to leave the EU without a deal this week. Such is the exasperation of the Tories with the prime minister, only 131 of the party’s MPs backed May in the latest vote, while 97 Euroskeptic Conservatives voted against the delay, along with the Democratic Unionist Party, which props up the government’s delicate parliamentary majority.
The Conservative rebels in Tuesday’s vote accounted for more than half of backbench Tory MPs, with their rebellion compounded by a further 80 that did not vote. Leadership hopeful and Trade Secretary Liam Fox spoke for many in the party when arguing that the UK would be “stuck in the worst of both worlds” if it agreed a post-Brexit customs union with the EU. With her party in revolt, May was anxious as she traveled to Berlin and Paris to garner support for her latest plan, the failure of which could send the UK into a no-deal Brexit tailspin. This could prompt a UK-only recession, a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a fall in the value of the pound, and a 10 percent rise in food prices.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid