24 May 2019

After Theresa May – what next?

It was a tearful farewell from a Prime Minster who kept her emotions tightly in check throughout her premiership. Theresa May also made an impassioned plea for compromise on Brexit, speaking in front of Downing Street, a spot she’s made some pretty uncompromising noises from in her time.

Is compromise more likely under the next Prime Minister? Or will the chances of compromise be shredded as candidates try to woo grassroots activists who seem to be very keen on a “no deal” Brexit.

Is the Withdrawal Agreement, all 500 pages of it, painstakingly negotiated, defeated three times in parliament, now an irrelevance?

Have we moved to the politics of “no deal”?

Any candidates with a chance of winning will (a) insist they have a better, tougher negotiating stance which will bring results from the EU and (b) will insist they are ready in a way that Theresa May never was to embrace no deal. Option (b) could come into play very quickly given that the EU is laughing in horror at the idea it will sign up to some of the proposals which ERG stalwarts say are viable but just weren’t pushed hard enough.

Can Parliament stop “no deal”?

There’s been analysis to suggest they probably can’t and some pro-Brexit candidates’ campaigns are insisting that is right. That would mean exiting on “no deal” without so much as a bill protecting EU citizens’ rights. Quite challenging but some leadership camps say a necessary bit of awkwardness you could clear up the next day.

Of course, the EU will insist that the Withdrawal Agreement will not truly disappear. Even after “no deal” it will be the document waiting on the table when Britain crawls back after a few weeks in the wilderness, the argument runs. The process of building a formal trading relationship won’t start unless Britain agrees to honour its obligations as indicated in the Agreement, EU figures say.

Most plausible candidates will tell the Tory selectorate that fully fledged “no deal” preparations will mean the EU engages with their revised offer which, presumably, would try to over-ride the backstop provisions.

With today’s tearful announcement from Theresa May we also take a giant step towards the politics of “pick a side.”

On Labour benches as well as Tory benches that has been the refrain you keep hearing. Jeremy Corbyn must show he is truly in the Remain camp (maybe the “Rejoin” camp in time), many MPs say.

Richard Drax, ERG veteran MP, tells me he thinks Theresa May “mimicked” Brexiteer rhetoric from her arrival in Downing Street but in private soon started tacking towards the Treasury/Remain end of the argument, hugging EU institutions close.

The next Tory leader will be pressed for commitments to prove they won’t slide the way Brexiteers feel Theresa May did. They will be asked to sign in blood that they are 100% committed to coming out of the EU on 31 October, ready to pump big money into “no deal” preparations and are unswervingly committed to leaving with no deal if necessary.

Peter Bone is one of few Tory MPs who decided to stay in Westminster on what he realised was going to be a busy Friday. He’s getting rockstar attention from British and overseas film crews on Westminster’s Abingdon Green. He told me; “Enough of compromise,” and said he was speaking for many MPs and activists when he said that.

Candidates to succeed Theresa May will also have to reassure MPs that they are not about to call a general election or embrace the idea of a referendum. As with some of their other commitments, they may have their fingers crossed behind their backs as they speak. Two leadership campaigns have privately reached out for advice on how a second referendum might work, the timings and logistics of such a project. All candidates will be pressed to reassure MPs that they’re not in for an Autumn General Election which Tory MPs dread and will dread even more after the Sunday night results from the European Parliament elections.

Just to add to nerves, I understand that senior officials in Whitehall have recently discussed the possibility of an election this summer. The scenario gamed in Whitehall conversations was that Boris Johnson wins but his pledges on “no deal” so outrage some Tory MPs they vote with Labour in a vote of no confidence in the government. He becomes leader of the party but never gets the keys to No. 10. Some think a vote of no confidence is a more plausible scenario for the autumn. Some pro-Remain Tory MPs insist they are ready to press that nuclear button  to avoid “no deal.” The Tory candidates they most fear insist they wouldn’t dare and would bottle it.

There could be many more tears to come.

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