When Prime Minister Theresa May danced onto the stage at the Tory conference yesterday to speak to the assembled Tories, she did so as a leader whom 80 percent of Conservatives want to see replaced before the next election. Admittedly, polls show that only about one-third of Tories said they wanted her replaced at once. An easygoing 40 percent would be content if she departed sometime between now and July 2022. Still, only one-fifth of Tories want May to stay leader past that point. They’re old-fashioned: They disapprove of assisted suicide.
Even so, anyone who knows the Tory party will find this level of internal opposition extraordinary. Grassroots Tories have traditionally been deferential — they know their place — and Tory MPs have been clever at disguising their opposition until some dramatic event gives them license to rebel respectably. Election defeats usually provide this: Alec Douglas-Home, Ted Heath, John Major, William Hague, Michael Howard, and David Cameron all fell in this way.
Theresa May did not actually lose the 2017 election — she led Labour by two points in the popular vote — but she lost her party’s parliamentary majority in an election that was generally expected to produce a Tory landslide. That near-defeat was plainly attributable both to her own robotic campaign performance and to her policies — such as the so-called “dementia tax” that alienated older voters, a natural Tory constituency. She should have been defenestrated then.
May was able to hold on as PM because Conservatives thought she would unite the party in support of implementing Brexit, after which she would smilingly resign and be given the credit for a historic achievement. That was naïve, of course: What political leader resigns after a great achievement? But what no one then expected is that May would pursue a policy designed to ensure that Brexit never occurs — or that what does occur is Remain lightly disguised as Brexit, or worse.
Worse than Remain? Well, yes. May’s Brexit proposals — now known as “Chequers,” after the PM’s country house, where they were imposed on a surprised cabinet days after May had personally assured the secretary of state for exiting the EU that she had no such intentions — would effectively keep Britain inside the EU’s single market (i.e., by accepting its current and future regulations) and its customs union, and keep it subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice while forfeiting its votes in all EU institutions.
Not enough for you? Then ponder this: The London Times has reported that the government is now prepared to cut a deal with the EU that would prevent a post-Brexit U.K. from reaching free-trade deals with other countries such as Australia, Canada, and . . . the United States. Such a deal would breach the reddest of red lines laid down by Theresa May and the Tory party since the 2016 referendum. Yet no one thinks the report is mistaken. And May has continued to say in interviews that final agreement with the EU will require concessions from both sides. But what has May left to concede?
It was plain before the conference began that May’s unpopularity had arisen directly from her Chequers policy. And though the Tory faithful are thought by the media to hold general opinions very different from those of most voters, on the question of Chequers, Tories and the general public come together almost uncannily: They both hate it. When polls ask voters to rank Chequers along a spectrum of possible Brexit options ranging from Remain in the EU to Leave without any deal at all, they always rank Chequers last. In one poll it had the support of 7 percent of voters. It’s a palpable dud.
That hostility to Chequers has been reaffirmed by the Tory conference since Sunday. In the hall it’s been a dull conference, ill-attended and tedious and filled with “corporate” PR people. Ministerial speeches have been notable for avoiding any mention of Chequers when possible, and otherwise dealing with the topic in a rapid and embarrassed way. Outside the hall, the so-called “fringe” meetings have been packed, and the speeches of Brexiteers have been cheered to the echo. Those speeches have been brutally candid in dismissing Chequers as a dishonest betrayal of both Brexit and the 2107 Tory manifesto endorsing it — or, as Boris Johnson put it in a rousing fringe address, as “a cheat.”
Gerald Frost has made the point elsewhere that the rise of “Europe” in British politics has coincided with a rise in dishonesty, lying, and obfuscation. That’s the almost certain result of clinging to a policy that not only is unpopular but becomes more unpopular as its real character and consequences become known. EU membership since the 1970s has been such a policy — and Chequers is its latest and last-ditch embodiment.
So what happens when a normally honest person tries to defend such a policy? Here’s Theresa May last Sunday defending Chequers to the BBC’s Andrew Marr (as recorded despairingly by the satirist and sketchwriter Michael Deacon in the Daily Telegraph):
Marr: If we leave the EU without a deal, doesn’t there have to be a hard border in Ireland?
May: We’ve been very clear that we do not want to see a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Marr: But if we leave without a deal, that does mean a hard border, doesn’t it?
May: We are committed to making sure that we can provide a guarantee to the people of Northern Ireland.
Marr: But if we leave without a deal, you can’t guarantee that there won’t be a hard border, can you?
May: We are working to make sure that we leave with a good deal.
Marr: But if we leave without a deal, there will be a border in Ireland, won’t there?
May: If we leave with no deal, we as the UK Government are still committed to doing everything we can to ensure there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Marr: But you’ll inevitably fail, because, according to World Trade Organisation rules, there has to be a border. Shouldn’t you level with people and explain that?
May: As the UK Government, we remain committed to doing everything we can to ensure no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
As Deacon pointed out sympathetically, it’s painful to read these kinds of dogged evasions. They have the same effect on an audience as does a cat sliding down a blackboard. But May has to stick to them, because if she were to give honest answers, there’s a risk that the entire edifice of evasions, half-truths, and bureaucratic bafflegab would collapse around her. And the consequences of that might include a Tory rebellion, the defeat of her policy, a constitutional crisis, and her own departure from Downing Street.
How did she get herself into this paralytic fix? Well, here I have to repeat myself. As my earlier articles on May’s Brexit policies have argued, she has been maneuvered — with her own willing cooperation — by a combination of the Remain majority in the cabinet, Downing Street civil-service advisers, and establishment institutions from the Treasury to the BBC into opposing the majority of her own party in Parliament and in the country. Media commentators have helped here by insisting that there is a Remainer majority both in Parliament and among Tory MPs, meaning that May has no alternative but to pursue to some sort of disguised Remain.
That’s highly dubious. It’s probably true that most of Parliament (if given a double dose of sodium pentathol and put on lie detectors) would opt for Remain. But that’s not the case with Tory MPs, who outside the cabinet probably have a Brexiteer majority. Besides, it’s manifestly silly to believe that MPs are guided solely by their own opinions. They are guided by a mix of factors that include fear of the whips, desire for reelection, a guilty memory of what they told their constituency activists, and the wish to appear on television (since news programs are eager to interview Remain rebels). As it happens, the only test of how MPs will vote when they come under these various pressures took place in the early summer, when a rebellion of Tory Remainers barely made it into double figures. That was a clear indication that May could get a strong and positive version of Brexit through the Commons if she pushed hard enough. But she and the media ignored its significance, as they had both downplayed or passed over the clear evidence of the local elections that Tory voters are now overwhelming in favor of Leave.
That was voters. How Tory activists feel was established without much doubt at this week’s conference, which became a Brexiteer fiesta at which Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg were greeted like pop stars, with delegates queuing up for several hours to get into their meetings. Chequers was a profanity to almost everyone present. This wasn’t the best or easiest environment in which for Theresa May to speak, because she is still doggedly determined to stick to Chequers and reject all alternatives. Admittedly, she had two advantages on her side. First, the Tory activists rather like Theresa May, whom they envisage as a decent, misunderstood person, rather like themselves in fact. Second, they are very polite people who don’t need to be told not to jeer or boo or even refrain from applauding. One or two ministers reminded audiences during the week that May herself is very polite, which seemed a clever way of requesting a warm reception for her.
May didn’t this need this last assistance because she rose to the occasion. She danced onto the stage to the music of Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” which may be the most daring and charming thing she’s ever done. She cracked some okay jokes about the disasters of last year’s conference speech, which removed its curse and helped her audience to relax. And she delivered competently a well-constructed speech with a comforting theme of the Tories as the party of all decent people versus the “ideologists” of the Corbynite Labour party (and by implication versus Boris’s Brexiteers). As Paul Goodman points out on the ConHome website, May was channeling Stanley Baldwin, who soothed Britain out of the Depression (and Labour out of power) in the 1930s with a gentle rhetoric of class reconciliation. It worked very well then — though better in the Thirties, when Chancellor Neville Chamberlain revived the U.K. economy, than in the Twenties, when Chancellor Winston Churchill was crucifying it on the euro-of-the-day — and it’s always a good patriotic tune. Mrs. May accordingly enjoyed the customary triumph.
As almost all commentators agreed, however, the triumph is likely to be short-lived. To start with, May’s chancellor, the uninventive Philip Hammond, resembles the failed Churchill rather than the successful Chamberlain, with the likely result that May will not have the resources to fund the “end to Austerity” that she promised in her speech. It’ll be a short party. Second, many of the specific promises she listed were actually repetitions of earlier promises. There was a lack in the speech not merely of “ideas,” especially of conservative ideas, but of actual practical proposals. In a few days the speech will have disappeared like a mirage as you approach it. Above all, however, the most important sentence in her speech on its most important topic, namely Brexit, was a pathetic appeal for everyone else to agree with her:
“Even if we do not agree on every part of this proposal, we need to come together.”
Or, to translate: Everyone’s out of step but our Jill.
There will not be a Kumbaya moment on her terms. She is in a small minority of her party on Brexit. Indeed, she has lost the confidence of her party at all levels except perhaps the cabinet. (And since she recently set up a new inner cabinet on Brexit composed almost entirely of Remainers, she’s apparently getting weaker even at that high altitude.) She is not prepared even to compromise with her party’s majority on Brexit. She previously made it clear that she is willing to rely on Labour MPs to pass her Chequers scheme if a Tory rebellion threatens it. If an unexpected parliamentary defeat were to provoke an election, she would almost certainly lose it. She would even struggle to avoid a Labour victory despite the electoral weaknesses of the Corbynite leadership she accurately diagnosed in her speech. She is therefore leading the Tories into a series of political defeats and constitutional crises in pursuit of a policy they oppose.
It doesn’t compute. Either May will have to change the policy, or her party will change its leader. But there is so little time to arrange either of these things efficiently and with reasonable hope of success that some of the looming crises may occur and threaten both Brexit and Toryism’s grip on power. Neither May, nor her Remain accomplices, nor her uncertain critics, “willing to wound but yet afraid to strike,” will easily be forgiven.