Euan McColm: Tory Brexit zealots out of touch with reality
How fitting it was that, as they moved in for the kill on Prime Minister Theresa May, the jackals of the Tory right couldn’t get their story straight. They have form for this, after all. Conservative Brexiteers and their fellow travellers blithely lied their way to victory in the 2016 EU referendum campaign, making undeliverable promises and insisting that anyone who dared raise legitimate points of concern was part of a cynical plot to undermine democracy. Anyone who says Brexit isn’t going to be easy or that it’s going to damage the UK’s economy – and standing in the global community – is a liar, they lied.
And so there was a certain black comedy on Friday when it turned out the organiser of a rebellion aimed at bringing down Prime Minister Theresa May was talking out of his arse.
To trigger a vote of no confidence in the PM, 15 per cent of her MPs must submit letters supporting the move to the 1922 Committee, which represents the views of Tory backbenchers. Early on Friday, the organiser of the current rebellion, Steve Baker MP, said he was confident the threshold had been reached and then some. Not only had more than 48 Conservative MPs passed letters to 1922 Committee chair Sir Graham Brady, another dozen colleagues were set to join them.
Predictably, Baker – a classic Little Englander Eurosceptic wing-nut – was (oh, let’s be charitable) mistaken.
As the day progressed, Brady revised his statement. The truth was that the 48 threshold had not been met. But it would be, he reckoned, “more likely next week”.
It is, of course, true that Baker’s initial statement may – over the next hours and days – come to be true, but on Friday morning, he unleashed some classic Brexiteer bulls**t. Still, we are all sick, as Eurosceptic Michael Gove said in 2016, of experts, so who cares if Baker’s facts were anything but?
Let us say that the hard right of the Tory Party is able to drum up the required number of letters, that 15 per cent of MPs decide she has to go – that would be the end of May, surely? Even if she was to survive a confidence vote by securing the support of a simple majority of the Tory Westminster group, she’d be so badly damaged that her resignation would be inevitable. That’s how these things work, isn’t it?
Under normal circumstances, that would probably be true. But, as is abundantly clear to anyone paying the slightest attention to UK politics, we are not living through normal circumstances.
Baker and his fellow extremists, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries and David Davis, may indulge a fantasy where a Eurosceptic Tory leader takes over and makes a success of the Brexit disaster they have created, but – as is their way – they haven’t thought things through.
The existence of these snakes in the Tory grass is hardly news to the PM. May knows – and has known since succeeding David Cameron in 2016 – that these right-wingers do not support her. For these rebels, this rabble of frauds who claimed two years ago that Brexit would be a breeze, departure from the EU without any kind of deal would be just dandy and to hell with the consequences. They may be about to find out that the majority of their colleagues do not share their enthusiasm for tossing a match on the UK haystack.
Success for the Tories’ right-wing nationalists in this instance would not just end the career of the Prime Minister, it would fundamentally change the Tory Party.
Just as the victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the 2015 Labour leadership contest moved the opposition towards the hard left, so victory for Baker and his cohorts would drag the Conservatives further right. The result of last year’s general election, in which Corbyn lost to the most chaotic Tory government in living memory, surely tells us that if one wishes to win elections, one should avoid extremism.
Compared with Corbyn, May, for all her flaws, appeared the more moderate candidate and the cautious electorate voted accordingly.
In the fever dreams of Tory Eurosceptics, former foreign secretary and perpetual charlatan (let’s not forget his support for the Leave campaign in 2016 was based not on long-held antipathy towards the EU but on the calculation it would leave him best placed to become prime minister) Boris Johnson rides into town and cleans things up. He ruffles his hair, puffs out his chest and tells those foreign sorts they can whistle for any kind of financial settlement, and sets the UK on course for a bright new isolationist future.
The slight flaw in this fantasy, as one Eurosceptic MP who’s backing the PM told me, is that a majority of the Tory parliamentary group is unlikely to pass a motion of no confidence in her; Eurosceptics may despise May but Remainers (and more moderate Leavers) fear a Johnson prime ministership would be a disaster. The words of Gove – who may, ironically, be an expert in this area – in 2016, when he withdrew support Johnson’s leadership bid claiming his colleague was unfit to lead the party, still echo.
All of this being so, it seems to me that the best possible outcome for May would be for the 48-letter threshold to be reached. If it is not, then the Eurosceptics on her backbenches will remain a daily problem, working to get the support they need to trigger a vote and – all the time – undermining the Prime Minister.
Yes, a confidence vote would be unpleasant but – as seems likely – she were to win it, she would create for herself some breathing space. Under Tory rules, she could not be challenged again for a year, which would give her time – and authority – to try to reach a deal with the EU with which she is, if not happy, comfortable.
Baker and his right-wing chums strutted around last week as if Theresa May’s defenestration was a done deal. In fact, it is far from so. Tory Eurosceptics – “bastards” in the words of former PM John Major – may have set themselves on course for a prolonged period of political irrelevance.