BREXIT UPDATE 31: The Maybot’s Fate is Sealed
In the end, it all happened very quickly, in the space of a few days. It was meant to be much more gradual. As I wrote last Friday (May 17), the Maybot was going to be given a final chance in early June to get her deal through Parliament – in the form of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) — so that there would at least be a faint possibility that, when she was finally consigned to the scrapheap, she could depart secure in the knowledge that she had fulfilled her programmed mission to deliver Brexit.
Yet this morning, only a week later, on Friday, May 24, she has made a statement in which she has resigned as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. So what has happened in the past week?
On Tuesday (May 21), the Maybot made a speech in which she outlined a “New Brexit Deal” consisting of ten points:
1) the Government will seek to conclude Alternative Arrangements to replace the backstop by December 2020, so that it never needs to be used;
2) a commitment that, should the backstop come into force, the Government will ensure that Great Britain will stay aligned with Northern Ireland;
3) the negotiating objectives and final treaties for the UK’s future relationship with the EU will have to be approved by MPs;
4) a new Workers’ Rights Bill that guarantees workers’ rights will be no less favourable than in the EU;
5) no change in the level of environmental protection when the UK leaves the EU;
6) the UK will seek as close to frictionless trade in goods with the EU as possible while outside the single market and ending free movement;
7) the UK will keep up to date with EU rules for goods and agri-food products that are relevant to checks at the border, protecting the thousands of jobs that depend on just-in-time supply chains;
8) the Government will bring forward a customs union compromise for MPs to decide on to break the deadlock;
9) MPs will be able to vote on whether the deal should be subject to a confirmatory vote/second referendum;
10) there will be a legal duty to secure changes to the Political Declaration to reflect the new deal.
The Maybot’s “New Deal” concentrated on trying to appease the DUP , the Labour Party and pro-EU Conservatives, with promises on Northern Ireland, a customs union compromise and a confirmatory vote/second referendum. But she succeeded in infuriating the Brexiteers without coming anywhere near to satisfying those at whom the concessions were aimed. Her Cabinet is reported to have revolted against her proposals of a more generous offer on the second referendum, which therefore fell short of anything that its supporters could back (after all, an amendment on a second referendum/confirmatory vote can be put forward and voted on by MPs at any time). And high-profile Brexiteer Tory MPs who had voted for her deal the last time it came to Parliament– including Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab –said they would not vote for the WAB. As for the other side, the Labour leadership made it clear that they were still going to vote against the WAB. Corbyn said “we won’t back a repackaged version of the same old deal”. The offers to the DUP fell far short of what was wanted (she only promised that the government would “seek” to replace the backstop with her vague “Alternative Arrangements” by December 2020, not that she would manage to do so) and were dismissed by them as a “hodge-podge”.
From then on, things moved very quickly. On Wednesday (May 22), the Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom (a Brexiteer who challenged the Maybot for the leadership after David Cameron’s resignation in 2016), dramatically resigned from the government, stating in her resignation letter to the Maybot: “I cannot fulfil my duty as Leader of the House tomorrow, to announce a Bill with new elements that I fundamentally oppose”.
That same night, the Guardian reported that the Executive of the 1922 Committee had voted again on whether to allow a rule change that would permit a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister to be held immediately (she survived a vote of no confidence in her leadership last December, which means that, according to Tory Party rules, she cannot be challenged again till this December):
“A source in the 1922 Committee…said the Executive had voted tonight on whether to allow a new confidence vote that could oust Theresa May from the premiership. The results are now sealed in an envelope and would only be opened if May fails to resign by 10 June.”
On April 23, the 1922 Committee Executive had voted on whether to allow the rule change but had decided against it (see Brexit Update 27). This time, it seemed extremely likely that they had voted in favour and that the Maybot would not survive another no confidence vote.
Yesterday (Thursday May 23), the day of voting in the European Parliament elections, with the polls predicting another disaster for the Tories (the results are to be announced on Sunday, May 26), the Maybot is reported to have held private meetings with two Brexiteer Cabinet Ministers, Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid (both contenders to succeed her), who told her they could not support the WAB with its new clause about a second referendum.
Which brings us to this morning, Friday May 24. After a meeting with Sir Graham Brady, Chair of the 1922 Committee, the Maybot , faced with a choice between resigning there and then or opening the sealed envelope and in all likelihood undergoing the long-drawn-out agony of a Conservative no-confidence vote in her leadership, together with the humiliation of seeing her deal defeated for a fourth time, finally accepted checkmate. In her resignation speech this morning outside 10, Downing Street, she said she will step down as Conservative Party leader on June 7 and the Conservative leadership contest will begin the week after. She will remain as caretaker Prime Minister till her successor is elected at the end of July. She broke down in tears as she concluded:
“I will shortly leave the job that it has been the honour of my life to hold – the second female prime minister but certainly not the last. I do so with no ill-will, but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love”.
She expressed her deep regret that she had not managed to deliver Brexit. But, dishonest to the last, she listed among her government’s achievements the setting up of a public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire disaster – a boast that was labelled “disgraceful” by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU). The FBU General Secretary said in a statement issued on the same day:
“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy.”
The Maybot also said in her speech: “We have helped more people than ever to enjoy the security of a job” – but, as Jeremy Corbyn had pointed out in Prime Minister’s Question Time the previous week, many people who are in work are paid so little that they depend on food banks to feed their families.
Ironically, the Maybot’s resignation statement emphasised the importance of compromise; but her real problem was her rigid, robotic refusal to compromise on her “red lines” until too late; and then it was her belated and half-hearted attempts to compromise that helped to bring her down.
But according to Robert Peston of ITV, it wasn’t so much the second referendum offer that finished her; the real agent of the Maybot’s downfall is Boris Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary, who managed after May’s “New Deal” speech to convince members of the Cabinet that she was too defeatist about the possibility of changing the backstop. She has always argued that the EU will never agree to change the Withdrawal Agreement (which includes the backstop); according to her, only the non-binding Political Declaration can be altered (the non-binding nature of the Political Declaration is a major reason why her New Deal has been rejected by the DUP). According to Peston, Johnson managed to persuade Cabinet members that, if he becomes PM, he can go back to the EU and renegotiate the backstop; and, if he doesn’t succeed, he will, he is said to have promised, take the UK out of the EU on October 31, deal or no deal.
Johnson is the favourite to succeed the Maybot; but some Conservative MPs are already indicating that they could leave the party if he becomes its leader and Prime Minister. Assuming he manages to win (which is by no means a certainty), he would have great problems holding the party together and could go for an early General Election.
In a statement on the Maybot’s resignation, Jeremy Corbyn has called for an immediate General Election:
“The Prime Minister is right to have resigned. She has now accepted what the country has known for months: she cannot govern and nor can her divided and disintegrating party. The burning injustices she promised to tackle three years ago are even starker today…..Whoever becomes the new Conservative leader must let the people decide our country’s future through an immediate General Election.”
For the FBU statement:
For PMQ on May 15, 2019: https://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2019/may/prime-ministers-questions-15-may-2019/