Regular readers of this column will know that I am no fan of the Prime Minister.
I was not a supporter of her becoming leader of the Conservative Party, believing that it would have been wiser to put one of the many other candidates that had supported leaving the EU at the helm. Nevertheless, I was prepared to give Theresa May a chance to convince me she was up to the job.
A great deal has happened since those early days of her premiership in the summer of 2016, yet despite all the challenges offered by her opponents from inside and outside her party – and of course all the work of fifth columnists who have intentionally sought to undermine the UK’s negotiating position by visiting EU leaders to encourage them to take as tough a stance as possible in the hope that it might lead to Brexit being overturned – Theresa May is still in post
Being politics, which is an art and not a science, perceptions are not reality and the Prime Minister remains highly vulnerable. Yet I am beginning to think Theresa May is almost politically indestructible, she is a political Houdini, an escapologist who is able to get out of what look impossible situations, be it a Cabinet straightjacket or being tossed off a bridge by her backbenchers into a river wrapped in chains. No matter the test she still manages to dislocate her shoulder and extricate herself from bondage – or hold her breath long enough to unravel the chains and swim to safety.
It is of no importance that I believe her to be the worst Prime Minister in my lifetime; her EU negotiations have demonstrated without a shred of doubt that she is a hopeless strategist, if she has a strategy at all; she has quite shamelessly worked behind colleagues’ backs in a most deceitful way; she believes her Withdrawal Agreement delivers on Brexit when any scrutiny of the detail shows that even without the ridiculous and unnecessary backstop it does exactly the opposite of everything she claims for it.
I could go further and argue that in her time at the Home Office many of the things she touched were a failure, including immigration targets and a 2014 child sexual abuse inquiry that has still to report.
For all the evidence of political ineptitude there is no doubt however that Theresa May has a strong sense of public service and public duty. For someone who is diabetic she has an admirable stamina that makes her opponents look workshy. She is able to combine self-confidence with humility and clearly has a sense of humour that includes sending herself up (such as her parodying her robotic dancing).
Surviving her leadership challenge was not the clear success that the numbers suggest. With 117 votes against there are undoubtedly some ministers who voted against her and there can be little doubt that outside the payroll vote the majority of her backbenchers chose to withdraw their confidence. By winning, however, party rules grant her a free pass for a year. The threat in future will now come from party financiers and cabinet members telling her that she must step aside or they will withdraw their support publically.
The political reality is the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement is still likely to lose when it is voted upon in early January and she must then make a decision about what to do next. She swears she will not seek an extension to the Article 50 timetable that takes the UK out of the EU on 29th March 2019. She is even more robust in denying the possibility of a second referendum, and she has ruled out any type of variation on the Norway associate membership model. This leaves only departing without a transitional arrangement, a position she has thus far claimed she wishes to avoid, what is branded as “No Deal” but previously was called a “Hard Brexit”.
Leaving the EU without May’s proposed transitional Withdrawal Agreement that provides for negotiations of up to two years (or more – or being trapped indefinitely as a mute associate member) is not “No Deal”. It means trading from 30th March under a World Trade Organisation deal, rather than a specific EU trade deal. It is a deal with the world rather than with just the EU – and the signs are that Cabinet members are warming to it being the best route to take if Theresa May loses her vote during the week of 14 January.
There is growing confidence within the Cabinet that ministers are making good progress in planning for leaving to trade under WTO rules. The EU has now published its actions for “No Deal” and has allayed many fears that there will be a cliff edge. Planes will fly in and out of EU airports and over EU airspace. Lorries will pass through ports and the Mayor of Calais and President of northern France region have both allayed fears of punitive action. They sense such foolishness will hurt their local economies. Medicines, foods and manufacturing parts should not be delayed.
Meanwhile an online public petition to the House of Commons supporting leaving without a deal is way ahead of others recommending a second referendum or remaining. Polls also suggest leaving without a deal is more popular than May’s deal. Could the Prime Minister suddenly pivot to suggesting she has tried her best to work with the EU but has not been able to satisfy either Parliament or the British public with Junker’s meagre morsels?
She would face serious risks of resignations from some cabinet members and even some MPs from the party Whip – but is that a real problem? She would have to lose a vote of confidence for the possibility of a general election but would the likes of Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve bring the government down? Surely they would be immediately deselected as Tory candidates and go on to lose their seats? That would sober up even the most outspoken rebel.
May must be pondering another Houdini act. Once she loses her Commons vote she could yet become Saint Theresa, the martyr to Brexit and have her party swing behind her again. It might seem fanciful but she has shown she is a canny survivor – she may still be Prime Minister next Christmas by swinging behind “No Deal”. Santa may be the only one who knows what Theresa really wants in her stocking.