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Will Theresa May make the ultimate sacrifice to save her Brexit deal?

Is a leadership election looming in the Conservative Party? Credit: PA

Forget Brexit (I dare you!).

The game now, in the Tory Party, is positioning for the looming leadership election.

Because I can find no one in the Cabinet or on the backbenches who any longer believes Theresa May will be Prime Minister for longer than a few weeks, such is their fury and agony that we’re 18 days from leaving the EU and we still don’t know the how, the when or even the whether (OK, so it was impossible to forget Brexit – sorry!).

Even those who think the petard that’s hoisting her was made in Brussels say she had a choice whether to attach herself to it.

Here is the voice of a senior Cabinet member who till now has never uttered a squeak of disloyalty (or at least not to me): “She’s got to go, and soon; the idea that, if we do manage to get out, she’ll be in charge of the 80% of the negotiations left to do with the EU [on our future trade and security relationship] is utterly unthinkable."

The UK is set to leave the EU on March 29. Credit: PA

Such is the despair about Mrs May in the Conservative Party that, as I mentioned on my show three weeks ago, all the talk on the Tory backbenches – and now in the Cabinet – is whether her only effective Brexit Plan B, to at the last secure Commons assent for her reworked Brexit plan, is to pledge that another Tory PM will lead the years of talks on the UK’s long-term commercial, information-sharing, policing and defence relationship with the EU.

Which would mean she would have to pledge to quit by the end of June, probably.

Will she make that ultimate sacrifice, for the good of party and country (as her colleagues would see it)?

“We all think she should”, said a minister, who might be exaggerating, but possibly not much.

“But it’s just not her style.

"She will always find a reason why the time is not now."

But a third minister said it was “bonkers” the PM still talks about working through her agenda for the nation, as she did on her recent official trip to the EU summit in Egypt because “in December the party will simply throw her out [that’s the anniversary of the last confidence vote in her]”.

The minister asked “why on Earth does she want to hang around for that humiliation”?

The true measure of the collapse in the Cabinet’s confidence in her is the prism through which they see the expected vote on Wednesday on whether to take a no-deal Brexit off the table.

Amber Rudd, Greg Clark and David Gauke all want a free vote on the potential no-deal vote. Credit: PA

More than half the Cabinet are terrified at the idea that the PM will buckle to pressure from Gauke, Rudd and Clark and make it a free vote: although they agree with the Gaukward Squad that no deal would be an economic catastrophe, they also know that Tory members – who are largely Brexiters – would never forgive them if they were to vote to take no-deal off the table.

“It is much easier for me if there is a three line whip against no deal”, said a minister, with conspicuous leadership ambitions.

He fears those ambitions would be blown up if he walks through the lobbies with Remainy ministers and backbenchers, who are seen by much of the Tory congregation as betraying the true Brexit way.

The point, of course, is that the Cabinet revolt against the PM lags behind the almost wholesale insurrection on the backbenches.

Here are the words of an influential Brexiter backbencher: “We couldn’t have her in charge of the future-relationship talks, because they will be as difficult and will probably be more important than the abortive ones we’ve had on the divorce."

So in the expected event that the PM cannot secure agreement from the EU to modify the Northern Ireland backstop to mollify Tory Brexiter and Northern Ireland DUP MPs, would a pledge from the PM to go, and go soon, win over any of those rebel MPs?

“Some of my colleagues would vote for the deal if she promised to stand down”, said the grandee.

Enough, to win the day for her deal?

“I don’t know” he said.

“But what other card does she have to play?”