‘The numbers just don’t stack up,’ one cabinet minister wearily declared to me on Monday night. This is, perhaps, the single most important fact in British politics today: Theresa May does not currently have the votes to pass her Brexit plan even if she could get the European Union to accept it.
Boris Johnson and David Davis’s resignations mean that it won’t just be Jacob Rees-Mogg and a dozen ultras voting against Theresa May’s Brexit deal, but a far larger group. Further proof of this came on Tuesday, when two of the party’s vice-chairs — Ben Bradley and Maria Caulfield — resigned so that they could oppose the deal. Tellingly, neither one would have been on anyone’s list of Brexit obsessives. When I asked a Remain–voting cabinet minister where things will now end up, he predicted that there would be ‘60-odd voting against’ Mrs May’s compromise, ‘and you can’t make up for that with pragmatic Labour MPs’.
Boris Johnson’s resignation letter was free of classical analogies. But one would have been appropriate. For what Mrs May appears to have won is a Pyrrhic victory. She has got the cabinet to agree a common position that looks like it will open the door to negotiations with the EU. But the price she has paid for this success will result in so many Tory MPs voting against the deal that it is difficult to see how it can pass.
Part of the problem for Mrs May is that many Tory Eurosceptics think that if her deal is defeated, Britain will simply default to leaving the EU without a deal. They see the choice as being between Mrs May’s deal and leaving without a deal and trading on World Trade Organisation terms. Indeed, one of the things that led to Boris Johnson’s resignation was his conclusion that no deal would actually be preferable to the Chequers plan. As this group are quick to tell you, the House of Commons has already paved the way for a no-deal Brexit by voting to trigger Article 50 and start the two-year process of formally leaving the EU.
This is technically true. But it misses the political realities of the situation. Barely one in ten MPs supports the idea of a no-deal Brexit, and it is certain that the House of Commons would try to foist another solution upon the government. However chaotic the process, an alternative would be found.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The first question to ask is whether Mrs May will survive as Prime Minister until Brexit Day, 29 March 2019. May loyalists are bullish about her prospects. They point out that she has weathered the departure of two of her most senior cabinet ministers with remarkable sangfroid. They also say, rightly, that there have been remarkably few people agitating for a leadership election.
At the moment Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the European Research Group, the key lobby of Brexiteer Tory MPs, keeps saying he wants to change the policy, not the Prime Minister. But it’s increasingly clear that you can’t do one without the other. As one cabinet minister tells me, ‘she desperately wants a deal’ and she regards the Chequers plan as a crucial step towards that. Those around May know that if she abandoned this plan, she would lose face at home and all credibility in Brussels.
But even if Brexiteer Tories decided to try to remove Mrs May, they wouldn’t succeed. They probably do have the numbers to get the 48 letters which would force a vote of confidence, but they definitely don’t have the 159 votes they’d need to win it. Matters are further complicated by the fact that if Mrs May won a vote of confidence, she couldn’t be challenged for another year. Interestingly, one of those closest to Mrs May believes that a confidence vote might, in fact, benefit her, as she would win it comfortably and then have a year without the threat of another one, giving her a freer hand in the Brexit negotiations. Her critics agree. As one cabinet member puts it, ‘If an attempt is botched, she’ll be in the constitutionally unprecedented situation of being a prime minister who cannot be removed by her party.’
Some Brexiteer Tories think it best to wait until September to dislodge her. Their logic is that the EU will be asking for further concessions by then and they calculate that Mrs May will oblige. If she caves on the two issues that the voters care about most keenly — money and migration — then a confidence vote could finish her off. But others argue that by September it will all be too late. They contend that a new prime minister, installed now, would have a chance of getting Britain ready to leave the EU without a deal by March next year. Wait until the autumn and Britain will be forced to take whatever the EU offers.