The walls are closing in on UK’s embattled prime minister Theresa May, who after the disastrous outcome in the general election, and following a torrid week in which she faced fierce criticism for her handling of the Grenfell Tower catastrophe, in which 58 people are now presumed dead, is reportedly facing what the Telegraph calls a “secret plot” – well, not so secret any more – involving a “stalking horse” challenge to remove her as prime minister if she caves to Labour demands, and waters down the “Hard Brexit.”
With the NYT reporting that “‘Soft Brexit’ Forces Rise in Britain on the Eve of Talks” scheduled for Monday, (despite 70% of Britons still supporting Brexit according to a Thursday YouGov poll), the Telegraph reports that according to leading Eurosceptic MPs they are prepared to mount an immediate leadership challenge if Mrs May deviates from her original plan. The British publication adds that “conservative MPs – including Cabinet ministers – have concluded that Mrs May cannot lead them into the next election and they are now discussing when she could go.
Fearing that the chorus of “soft Brexit” demands rising across the UK following May’s sudden weakness, while Germany’s economy minister Brigitte Zypries going so far as telling Reuters that an outright “reversal of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union would be great,” Eurosceptic MPs have warned that any attempt to keep Britain in the customs union and single market or any leeway for the European Court of Justice to retain an oversight function will trigger an “overnight” coup.
The plot has been likened to Sir Anthony Meyer’s 1989 challenge against Margaret Thatcher. One influential former minister said: “If we had a strong signal that she were backsliding I think she would be in major difficulty.
The point is she is not a unifying figure any more. She has really hacked off the parliamentary party for obvious reasons. So I’m afraid to say there is no goodwill towards her.”
They added: “What we would do is to put up a candidate to run against her, a stalking horse. You can imagine who would do it. It would be a rerun of the Margaret Thatcher scenario, with Anthony Meyer.
Another former minister told the Telegraph that “if she weakened on Brexit, the world would fall in… all hell would break loose.” Additionally, many other Eurosceptics have effectively made their support for May conditional on her fulfilling the terms set out in her Lancaster House speech, delivered in January, which was also reflected in the Tory manifesto.
To be sure, even if May relented to demands for a “Soft Brexit”, it is unclear just how the UK could afford the €100 billion soft Brexit bill demanded by Brussels to arrange an amicable divorce; and as a reminder, in October, EU summit chair Donald Tusk said:
“The only real alternative to a ‘hard Brexit’ is ‘no Brexit’.” Pushing soft Brexit over hard is seen increasing the risk of replacing a smooth Brexit with rough.
But even if mutiny is averted this time, May’s days could be numbered for a different reason altogether: her response to this week’s tragic conflagration at the Grenfell Tower, where critics questioned why May failed to meet victims and relatives on her first visit to the Grenfell Tower – in contrast to Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader. As the Telegraph notes, “Damian Green, the First Secretary of State, defended Mrs May on Saturday, saying she was “distraught” about the blaze and said the criticism was “terribly unfair”.”
But some Tories have admitted they are concerned about a “very serious” backlash and fear Mrs May’s image may have been damaged irrevocably.
Meanwhile, May has been scrambling to contain as much damage as possible:
Mrs May last night attempted to stabilize her new Government – still less than a fortnight old – by announcing there would be no Queen’s Speech in 2018. The move, which will mean Parliament sitting for a two-year session rather than one, was framed as a way of ensuring Brexit-related laws are passed in time.
However, it also removes a critical vote that could have toppled the Government and comes as a crucial support deal with the Democratic Unionist Party has yet to be finalized.
All this is taking place as Brexit enters the spotlight when UK’s David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, goes to Brussels for the formal start of talks tomorrow.
A Cabinet row that has played out all week goes public on Sunday as Liam Fox and Boris Johnson issue a thinly veiled rebuttal of Philip Hammond’s views. Dr Fox, the International Trade Secretary, writes in The Telegraph that Britain must be able to sign free trade deals after Brexit – which means leaving the customs union.
“We want Britain to be able to negotiate its own trade agreements, and as we leave the European Union that is what we will do,” he writes. Mr Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, is expected to make public similar comments.
However, Mr Hammond, the Chancellor, will appear on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday to argue for a softer Brexit with an emphasis on maintaining free trade links with the EU.
The biggest irony of all, perhaps, is that the UK political crisis is blowing up just as France is set to elect a government led by Emanuel Macron’s party in a landslide in tomorrow‘s parliamentary elections, making France – the country which everyone was so worried about at the start of the year – the rock of establishment stability, even as the UK teeters on the edge.