Theresa May braced for a fall as Brexit tests loom
On the morning of Friday June 9, Theresa May walked through the black door of Downing Street and into an empty shell. Where once there was power, wielded through control and fear, there was impotence. Overnight, Mrs May’s attempt to win an electoral mandate to negotiate Brexit on her own terms had been eviscerated.
As the door swung open, an ashen prime minister was applauded by her officials. A few days later, in the Pillared Room of Number 10, Mrs May spoke with a catch in her voice as she thanked her staff for that act of kindness. But Mrs May’s leadership would never be the same again.
Downing Street had become a lonely place. Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, Mrs May’s chiefs of staff, did not accompany her into Number 10 on that morning and the next day they resigned. Several weeks later, eyewitnesses say her office is still depleted, key jobs unfilled. “The bunker seems almost empty and deeply disheartened,” says one.
Mrs May has cut a diminished figure. In Brussels for a European Council summit on June 22, she was allowed to give a brief presentation on her plans for safeguarding EU citizens’ rights while waiters cleared the dessert of macerated cherries and almond milk ice cream. Mrs May, who asked voters to give her “an equally strong mandate” to the landslide secured by France’s Emmanuel Macron, was then asked to leave. Cameras filmed the prime minister, head bowed, walking grimly to a waiting car.
At Westminster she has been reduced to cobbling together a deal with reactionary politicians from Northern Ireland to secure a fragile House of Commons majority, jettisoning many of the policies in the Conservative manifesto and apeing the anti-austerity policies of the Labour opposition. “Defeat in victory,” notes Nicholas Macpherson, formerly the top official in the Treasury.
Meanwhile cabinet ministers exploit the vacuum by publicly dictating terms to Mrs May on the future direction of policy on Brexit and the economy. The briefings and the jostling for succession become more audacious as the days pass. Mrs May’s election offer of “strong and stable” leadership is now a staple of the gallows humour that has enveloped Conservative MPs.
A Conservative minister laments: “There is no plan, no strategy, no direction.” The question being asked in Britain and Europe is simple: how long can Mrs May last and can she deliver Brexit?
Mrs May only survived the humiliation of last month’s snap election because Conservatives have decided that the alternatives to an enfeebled leader are even worse. On June 9 party grandees trooped into Downing Street to tell the emotional prime minister that she had a duty to party and country to stay.
Most Conservative MPs fear that if Mrs May is ousted, the party would face a leadership contest that would once again split it over Europe, this time between those favouring a soft or hard Brexit. There is no obvious frontrunner, the eventual winner would have no direct mandate from the British people and they might inherit a party in a state of nervous disintegration. There would be a clamour for another election, which the leftwing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn could win. Although Mr Corbyn is no fan of the EU, the Brexit process would be thrown into chaos.
“There is a general mood of seriousness and a sense that if we screw this up, a Marxist government steps into the breach,” says one senior Conservative MP. Another says: “The person holding the party together is Jeremy Corbyn. The fear of Corbyn is greater than any nuance in the Brexit negotiation.”
Under the most common plan articulated by Conservative MPs, the first aim is to get the prime minister through to the safety of the summer recess on July 20. Then, if all goes well, Mrs May would stay long enough to oversee Brexit in March 2019, taking the blame if it goes wrong. Then, her political use exhausted, she would hand over to a new leader to take the party into the next election in 2022.
It is an uphill and thankless task, but Mrs May insists she is up for it. “I will serve as long as you want me,” she told the party’s MPs on June 12. “I got us into this mess and I’m going to get us out of it.” One Conservative MP says: “She has the real sense of duty of a vicar’s daughter.”
Mrs May has stabilised her situation in recent days. Her parliamentary performances have been solid, while Mr Corbyn has failed to exploit her weakness. She has replaced the aggressive Mr Timothy and Ms Hill with a single chief of staff, the popular former MP Gavin Barwell. After her woefully misjudged visit to the site of the Grenfell Tower fire last month, where she failed to meet survivors, she has had a better few days. “She’s laughing again,” says one Downing Street insider.
But the reprieve may be temporary. Mrs May might get through to the summer holidays but her fragile grip on power will be tested again in what promises to be a dangerous October.
In the first test, Mrs May attends the annual Conservative party conference in Manchester. It will see cabinet ministers jostling for position in the leadership contest that they believe will take place in the following 18 months.
It has started already. In recent days potential leadership contenders such as foreign secretary Boris Johnson have taken to publicly unpicking the government’s austerity programme by calling for an end to the 1 per cent cap on public sector pay. Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons who fought Mrs May for the party leadership in 2016, made an unannounced visit to Grenfell Tower to meet survivors, in a move seen by Number 10 as a blatant attempt to show she possessed more empathy than the prime minister.
But these acts of cabinet insurrection are nothing compared with the public battle raging between ministers over Brexit, with Mrs May apparently unable to stop it. The hard and soft Brexiters will make their pitches to the Conservative faithful in Manchester, just weeks before Mrs May has to make up her own mind on how she hopes to execute Britain’s departure from the EU.
A Brussels summit on October 19-20 will be the crunch point by which Britain hopes to have concluded preliminary talks on the divorce settlement in order to move on to the future UK-EU relationship. Chancellor Angela Merkel, if she wins September’s German elections, will want to know what Mrs May has in mind.
Before the election, policymaking on Brexit was straightforward: it was set inside Mrs May’s fortress by an inner circle with Mr Timothy and Ms Hill at its heart and presented to the cabinet as a fait accompli. The “chiefs” controlled all access to the prime minister; unwelcome advice or overly “pessimistic” officials were kept at bay.
Ivan Rogers, Britain’s former EU ambassador, was briefed against and then forced out of his job for presenting uncomfortable truths. Chancellor Philip Hammond, according to Downing Street insiders, was also seen as too gloomy about Brexit and was abused by Ms Hill at meetings. He expected to be sacked too, had Mrs May won her expected election landslide.
So when Mrs May set out her “red lines” for the Brexit negotiations at last year’s conference in a speech written by Mr Timothy, there had been no thorough cabinet consultation. Her insistence, for example, that the European Court of Justice could have no future role in a Brexit settlement came out of the blue and left Brexit secretary David Davis “hamstrung” in negotiations, according to James Chapman, his former chief of staff.
Mr Timothy, anxious to court working-class voters, was determined that big business should also be kept at arm’s length from Mrs May. The prime minister’s allies now admit this was a mistake: on Friday business leaders will be invited to a Brexit summit at Chevening, a country house near London, hosted by Mr Davis. Business voices are now starting to fill the policy vacuum.
The post-election ousting of Mr Timothy and Ms Hill — the latter was notorious for spying disloyalty in colleagues and sending critical texts — has removed the fear that hung over Mrs May’s administration before the election. During that time ministers were banned from giving interviews or setting out their own views: now it is a free for all. “We can talk now,” joked one minister last week. “Fiona’s gone.”
In place of paranoia has come a remarkable reappraisal of what exactly Brexit should mean. “There wasn’t really any debate before,” admits one minister. The only problem is that it comes a bit late in the day: Britain voted to leave the EU more than a year ago and the clock is ticking down to an exit in March 2019.
“It would be nice to know exactly what we want from Brexit,” confided one government insider.
No senior minister has yet directly challenged the central tenets of Mrs May’s “hard Brexit” strategy set out in her January Lancaster House speech, which called for Britain to leave the single market, customs union and the jurisdiction of the European Court. But the soft Brexiters are starting to chip away at the edifice.
Mr Hammond is pressing for a long transition during which Britain would retain close ties to the EU, including remaining in the customs union. The Treasury is challenging Liam Fox, international trade secretary, to prove that the deals he hopes to secure when Britain eventually leaves the customs union more than offset an expected loss of trade with the EU. Mr Hammond is vehemently opposed to Mrs May’s threat — or bluff — that Britain could walk away with no deal at all.
Mr Davis, who is said by colleagues to be “more flexible than you think”, is exploring ways in which the ECJ might have a limited backstop role, allowing Britain to continue participating in European regulatory bodies, rather than recreating them at great expense at national level.
By October, Ms Merkel and Mr Macron will be expecting answers from Mrs May: is she going to seek a softer, more protracted Brexit, spread over several years, or the harder, quicker version favoured by some in her party? If she tacks away from a hard Brexit, she risks incurring the wrath of the Eurosceptics.
All the while Mrs May will aim to push Brexit legislation through the House of Commons when she has a working majority of only 13 and is vulnerable to rebellions by pro-European Conservatives pushing her towards a softer version of Brexit and disarming her threat to walk away with no deal.
The poison is already running around the system. “We can work with half the Labour party and crush the fuckers,” says one Conservative MP, referring to his Eurosceptic colleagues. A leading pro-Brexit MP says he would not tolerate threats from the “wankers” on his party’s pro-European wing.
Faced with implacable opponents in Brussels, a breakdown in cabinet discipline and a party torn over Europe, one can now see why Mrs May hoped to maintain the iron control that would have come with her expected “stronger mandate” on June 8. Instead she must try to hold it all together and deliver Brexit — a policy she initially opposed — as her last gift to a party counting down the days to the moment when it can finally oust her.
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard in London and Alex Barker in Brussels