16 Jul 2018

May’s whips negotiate humiliating climb-down to head off pro-Brexit rebellion

She is a Prime Minister on the ropes, humiliated by departing Cabinet Ministers and by the US President, struggling to get her EU strategy passed by her party. But Theresa May stood up to give a statement to the Commons this afternoon to near silence from her own back-benches.

Later on in the afternoon, by contrast, during a bad tempered debate on the EU Customs Bill, the former Brexit Secretary rose to a chorus of approval.

Today Theresa May’s whips have been negotiating a humiliating climb down to head off a pro-Brexit rebellion. The government appears to have accepted one particular amendment tabled by the pro-Leave European Research Group, which blatantly tries to drive a coach and horses through the Prime Minister’s proposals on customs in the White Paper. MPs who are members of the ERG are saying it was merely a clarifying amendment, probing the government’s intent. Catch them away from the camera and there is a cat that got the cream expression – and no attempt to hide the delight at what they think they achieved today.

Some ERG supporters say they think they proved today, by battering the government into submission, that they have the numbers to defeat the Chequers deal. Quite whether they have the numbers to put anything in its place is another matter. ERG supporters say they want to push the government back onto a deal that is more like the Canada Free Trade Agreement but it is a strain to see how Theresa May could preside over such a giant U-turn having thrown herself behind the Chequers strategy. Some ERG members don’t lose sleep pondering whether a new leader is necessary. Though speaking to one former Cabinet minister in their number he didn’t sound like someone who was comfortable that there was a plausible leader in waiting or time to get them installed before the moment of Brexit in March next year.

Enter stage right on Wednesday (possibly) Boris Johnson. The former Foreign Secretary has signalled to friends that he’d like to put a standard in the ground on Wednesday. The government could make sure by inserting statements that it doesn’t mean the PM having to squirm as she listens to him straight after PMQs. Mr Johnson’s supporters insist they will pack out the benches with Brexiteers showing support. But that underlines the problem with any leadership bid he might make. There are two wings to the Tory Party in Parliament and Mr Johnson has virtually no support obvious amongst the Remainers.

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