Tory infighting over Brexit: who won this week? | Politics

Was this the week when Tory Brexiters overplayed their hand?

It is been a difficult week for the hard-Brexit-backing European Research Group. A promised policy paper on the “Brexit dividend” had to be ditched after an embarrassing leak that contained unlikely ideas such as developing a Star Wars-style defence system against incoming nuclear missiles and establishing an expeditionary force to deal with Falklands-style attacks.

A “well oiled” meeting on Tuesday night heard several ERG MPs openly talk about removing Theresa May, forcing David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg to put down the plotters the next day, professing their support for the prime minister while insisting that all they wanted her to do was ditch her Chequers proposals for the future relationship with the European Union after Brexit.

Does that mean Theresa May is safe from a leadership challenge for the moment?

The reality is that the ERG does not have the numbers to force May out even though it can claim anywhere between 40 and 80 adherents. Removing the Conservative party leader requires half of the parliamentary party to oppose her in a confidence vote – a total of 159 MPs.

This week’s open manoeuvring has, meanwhile, solidified support for May elsewhere in the party: the centrist Tory Reform Group on Wednesday evening was attended by up to 60 MPs, with the chair, Nicky Morgan, telling those present it was time to “stand up against the louder voices”. Parliament is now back in recess, making it harder for MPs to plot in the corridors of Westminster.

Theresa May comes under fire during prime minister’s questions.



Theresa May comes under fire during prime minister’s questions. Photograph: Mark Duffy/UK Parliament/PA

What does May do next?

The prime minister’s survival rests on the success of her Chequers negotiating plan, hated by the ERG because it proposes signing the UK up to a “common rule book” for food and goods after Brexit. She heads to an informal European summit in Salzburg, Austria, next week where she will make a pitch to other EU leaders on Wednesday evening to engage with her Chequers proposals, hoping they loosen Michel Barnier’s negotiating mandate.

Even if this does not quite happen, No 10 will be satisfied if the other 27 EU countries do not reject Chequers out of hand as this will allow May to maintain that her negotiating strategy is credible through her party’s conference starting in Birmingham on 30 September. It is a deliberately low bar, but May needs to get through conference with the Chequers plan still looking like a credible basis for negotiations with the EU. Anything less and she is in real difficulty.

What about the threat from Boris Johnson?

The former foreign secretary remains a dangerous threat to May, despite revelations last weekend over his personal life, particularly if the Chequers plan is threatened by EU intransigence. Johnson unexpectedly turned up to an ERG event on Tuesday in the House of Commons and the resulting attention reinforced his position as the effective figurehead for rebel Tories. His plan, as outlined by one key adviser this week, is to periodically “throw rocks” at the Chequers deal.

The next key moment for the would-be prime minister is at the Conservative conference where he is due to appear at a single rally that is expected to attract 1,000 or more delegates. It will be an acid test of Johnson’s popularity with the party’s activists who have the ultimate say on who will next be leader. Expectations are high; he is certainly expected to overshadow the prime minister, who will be desperate to avoid a performance as disastrous as last year where she lost her voice, was assailed by a comedian and the letters on her backdrop fell off.

Where does this leave Brexit?

The key phase for negotiations, particularly over the future relationship, starts in October and runs right up the emergency European council that is set to happen in mid-November. No 10 believes that the talks will go down to the wire, a well-established pattern with all major European negotiations.

There is growing confidence that good progress is being made in the withdrawal agreement, which Barnier said on Monday could be struck in the next six to eight weeks, but the first critical question is whether the EU is prepared to compromise on the principle of the indivisibility of its four freedoms of goods, services, capital and persons to allow goods to flow seamlessly across the Irish border.

All parties to the talks are acutely aware that May has to then get her proposals through parliament. The ERG had repeatedly suggested that its supporters would vote against a Chequers-style compromise, but the resolve of its MPs has never been put to the test at a point where the only likely alternative is a no-deal Brexit. At some point in November, unless the Chequers deal collapses, May will have to run the gauntlet of the ERG – unless, that is, the unlikely scenario occurs in which Labour or one of the smaller parties decides that May must be supported in the national interest.

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