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How long can Theresa May survive Tory civil war?

There are circumstances in which the loss would see Tory MPs going further than Phillip Lee and quitting their party. Credit: PA

The strains in the coalition that is the Tory Party are becoming more intense.

On the Remain side, Phillip Lee spoke for many of his colleagues this morning in the statement he made on resigning from government, when he said that parliament must have the right to reject any Brexit deal eventually negotiated by May - and that our future relationship with the EU must be ratified in another referendum.

Plenty of backbench Tory Remainer MPs agree with him.

Their quibble is this, as voiced by one of the more influential of their number: “Not sure his timing is quite right”.

Phillip Lee quit as a justice minister in order to rebel over Brexit and plenty of backbench Tory Remainer MPs agree with him. Credit: UK Parliament

Or to put it another way, Lee could have destabilised the PM more if he had waited till it became clearer that the EU won’t countenance whatever unique customs and trade proposals the cabinet finally signs off.

What’s paradoxical is that Remainy unhappiness with May’s direction of Brexit travel is only matched by Brexiter anger and depression.

They hate May’s middle way quite as much as the Remainers do - with its strong prospect that the UK will remain subject to many EU rules and will continue to pay substantial sums to Brussels for putative trade privileges.

So here is May’s agony - and proof that yesterday’s show of unity at the 1922 committee meeting of backbenchers was quite the stage-managed charade.

Both sides are plotting how and when to oust her.

The Brexiters say they will be free to do what they like as and when the EU Withdrawal bill is law, probably in July.

They tell me either May takes Brexit instructions from them then, or they will move to replace her with someone they trust more (Gove is the name they most often mention).

As for the Remainers, they want to keep May hostage in number 10 till after Brexit day on 29 March next year, in the hope she can deliver the Brexit in name only that they seek.

One side in this epic struggle will lose.

And there are circumstances in which the loss would see Tory MPs going further than Lee and quitting their party.

The almost certain loser from all this is May, whose tenure at number 10 will now be measured in weeks and months - unless she can miraculously reconcile the irreconcilable wings of her party.