To Defeat the Extremists Theresa May Should Back a Second Referendum

The Tory party is at war. It is a sneaky, nasty little war.

In 1995, John Redwood, then the Cabinet’s most junior eurosceptic, resigned to lay out a series of ideas and different vision when he challenged John Major for the leadership; in 2018, the European Research Group promises a resignation a day until Theresa May abandons her Chequers plan.

All may be fair in love and war, but the British public are ill-served by rebels who could present policy but dare not. That is - after all - what Remain-inclined Tories did by presenting amendments to legislation. The Hard Brexiters don’t have policies though. They have adjectives: proud, determined etc etc etc.

The trouble is adjectives don’t protect jobs. Adjectives don’t protect public services. Adjectives merely mask their intellectual dishonesty.

this has been the first week since the referendum that the Hard Brexiters have been put on the back foot

On Friday, it seemed as if the Prime Minister had pulled off a remarkable coup. Her Chequers summit gained the agreement of her Cabinet. There were no resignations. Boris Johnson toasted the PM. For the first time Theresa May edged towards looking like a leader. Drift was gone.

David Davis’ resignation changed that. It was followed by Boris Johnson’s - as soon as he’d booked the photographer to take a snap as he left government.

With perhaps the days after the general election excepted, this has been the first week since the referendum that the Hard Brexiters have been put on the back foot. May belatedly put them there. As much as her government is in disarray, the Brexiters are as well.

May’s new Cabinet appointments showed a few things. She is not scared of the Brexiters. Had she wanted to placate her ultras, she would have appointed Michael Gove to the Foreign Office. Distrust and incompatibility probably stay her hand, but May was content that Jeremy Hunt, a Remainer-turned-Brexiter, replaced Leaver Johnson.

For the first time since July 2016, there is no Brexiter in one of the Great Offices of State. Symbolism maybe, but important nonetheless.

Meanwhile, that Dominic Raab accepted the role of Brexit Secretary is an indication that not all Brexiters worship at the Church of the Latter Day Mogg. As Housing Minister, Raab had every excuse to ask to remain where he was. His calculation would be that HMS May is not so leaky as to be sinking, and that there are enough pragmatic Leavers to ensure his personal stock does not plummet.

The ERG might have over-promised. The best they could manage on Tuesday was the resignation of Ben Bradley, a man best known for being forced to apologise for calling Jeremy Corbyn a spy. How the government will survive his loss few know. Worryingly though, he is not among the usual suspects of hardliners.

It might be that May faces a no-confidence vote. There are certainly the numbers to force a vote; there are almost certainly not the numbers to force May out of office. That Jeremy Corbyn persisted after he lost a confidence vote (and new rules), means May has greater latitude than previous embattled prime ministers.

Victory there means she could not face another challenge for a year - something that may stay rebels hands.

May has something she did not have last year - a plan

The true test of Theresa’s pudding is not in how the Tory party eats it but whether the EU27 even pick up the spoon. Here is potentially where it stumbles. Yet the resignations will show European leaders how far the prime minister can take her party. She does not have much wiggle room left.

On Sunday, Keir Starmer said he supported a second referendum. Meanwhile Tom Watson promised to “help” May with her plans. So slim is her majority that a handful of ultras can force a defeat. Any measures passed with Labour support make one party look responsible, the other barely able to function.

There is one other thing May might consider. Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to oppose the government’s deal and force a general election. An early election requires a vote of two thirds of the house or for the government to lose a specific confidence vote. Corbyn has the numbers for neither.

His own Brexit policy will hardly inspire the Lib Dems and Nationalist parties. He is relying on Kamikaze Brexiters not only voting down the government’s policy, but then voting with Labour on their confidence in the government.

May could suggest an alternative: should there be parliamentary impasse, she would back an immediate second referendum. Were she to make that pledge dependent on her getting what she wants from Brussels, it would not weaken her position.

She could then fight a referendum with her plan on the ballot paper next to the no deal that Brexiters are agitating for and a Remain option for those unconvinced by either. A preferential voting system would allow voters to choose their preferred and second options.

It would be hell of a u-turn, but May has something she did not have last year - a plan. It is not much of one. It is certainly not soft Brexit. However, it is the only Brexit plan there is whether one looks left or right.  

So long as pragmatic Leavers are on board - and May has shown she can arrange her troops when necessary - the prospect of having a grown-up debate might galvanise Brexiters or it might force them behind the prime minister. After all, they themselves have said that May’s plan is worse than the status quo.  

Leavers want May to change her mind. She is not going to. If they want war, she must give them war. Let the people decide.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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