Tomorrow the House of Commons breaks up for the summer recess, and it cannot come soon enough for Theresa May and her beleaguered government.
A week ago the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, toyed with the idea of pressing for the recess to start early – anything to avoid prolonging the febrile atmosphere that now occupies the House as members plot against their leaders; Tory rebels from all sides scheming against May’s worst-of- all-worlds Chequers agreement – or Labour moderates who have lost patience with Jeremy Corbyn’s ambivalence towards anti-Semitism and contorted positions on Brexit. Only the prospect of a likely government defeat over such callous government manipulation to silence unhappy MPs brought the withdrawal of the proposal.
Now some MPs look set to continue their rebellious talk over the summer holidays, ranging from discussions about establishing more cross-party attacks on the minority Conservative Government to going as far as launching a centrist party – both initiatives being part of the continued attempts by Remain supporters to reject the EU referendum result and reverse the Brexit decision.
Both developments would, I believe, be doomed to failure.
There can be no doubting the government’s majority is on a knife edge. An amendment rejecting the customs union drafted by the European Reform Group led by Jacob Rees-Mogg and accepted by the government only won by six votes after 12 Tories rebelled but five Labour MPs broke ranks and went the other way. Another two government/ERG amendments won by only three votes. Lib Dems Vince Cable and Tim Farron were absent on those, which would have narrowed the victory to only one. One Tory Europhile amendment backing the use of EU medicine regulations triumphed against the government whip simply because the Labour Brexiteers that had helped the government previously did not believe it important enough an issue to rebel over.
When MPs return in September Ian Paisley Jnr, a pro-Brexit DUP member, will be suspended for 30 sitting days, putting the government’s majority at even greater risk.
So it makes sense for Remainers to coordinate across parties – but it is a high-risk strategy, not just for them personally but for democracy too.
There is evidence that politicians failing to accept the referendum result by subverting Brexit entirely or seeking to deliver a deal that is Brexit in name only is increasingly exasperating the public.
Yesterday a Sunday Times YouGov poll showed 38 per cent support for a new pro-Brexit party and a further 24 per cent willing to support a “far-right anti-immigration, anti-Islam” party – with one in three in favour of an anti-Brexit party. The polling also showed support for May’s Chequers plan was only 11 per cent, while Boris Johnson was identified as the only Tory offering the possibility of defeating Corbyn, both men tying on 38 per cent. When asked who would negotiate the best Brexit deal, Johnson came first with 48 per cent with Corbyn trailing badly on 20 per cent – even Nigel Farage (27 per cent) and Donald Trump (24 per cent) polled higher.
The problem for Remain campaigners is that, while defeating the government to dilute its already soft Brexit Chequers plan is possible, it could deliver a stalemate that provokes a leadership challenge against May. If Johnson can get to the run-off where party members have the deciding votes, then he could expect to replace May and become a Leave-supporting Prime Minister.
Other scenarios are being considered, with Tory Remainer Anna Soubry suggesting a “national unity” government that would even include the SNP, which by definition wants disunity to break up the UK, and Cable attending a private dinner to discuss the formation of a centre-left anti-Brexit party that would appeal to Labour moderates and Tory Europhiles. Soubry, who represents Broxtowe, a constituency that voted Leave, has previously advanced the idea of a new party and is believed to have joined the SDP in the 1980s before coming back to the Conservatives after a career in broadcasting.
Other than finance, the main problem for a new party is that any MPs who leave the Labour or Conservative parties would be under immense pressure to follow the example of Douglas Carswell, who called a by-election when he left the Tories to join Ukip. Carswell set a democratic precedent, which was then followed by Mark Reckless, who also left the Tories for Ukip. Both won their by-elections. For any MPs to change parties between elections without seeking the approval of the electorate looks cowardly and arrogant, putting any new party immediately on the defensive. Such a group will be accused of being anti-democratic in seeking to reverse the EU referendum and scared of putting its trust in voters.
Many of the sitting MPs, especially those with low majorities, would be open to defeat, for the sitting MP’s vote would probably split with his or her former party. Soubry, for instance, has a majority of 863 over Labour and could be expected to struggle in a three-way tie, with Labour hoping to win. In Labour seats with low majorities, the Conservatives might be the beneficiaries. The idea that a centrist candidate would simply hoover up votes from both parties does not necessarily follow when Brexit is dominant, and would be influenced by an MP’s record and local circumstances.
The most likely outcome in this ever-changing kaleidoscope of scenarios is continued guerrilla warfare by Remain-supporting Conservatives, with the ever-present threat of Eurosceptic Tories standing behind May, threatening to bring her down if she concedes further ground in Parliament or to the EU in the Brexit negotiations.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator on Brexit, is now openly ridiculing the Chequers plan so he can demand more concessions from May. His plan is clear, to ensure the only rational conclusion is that the EU’s deal is so bad that the alternative is leaving on World Trade Organisation terms (which we use for trading with all 150-plus other countries) – or remain EU members.
Meanwhile in the last week the EU signed off a free trade deal with Japan that requires no freedom of movement of labour, no membership of the single market or customs union and no annual membership fee for access to trade.
The answer is clear: May needs to drop her Chequers plan as having failed to gain the support of the EU or UK Parliament and prepare for leaving without a deal where control of our destiny will be in our own hands and an eventual EU deal can be flushed out.
• Brian Monteith is director of Global Britain