Beware the superficial when assessing Theresa May, Britain’s Prime Minister. Most of the time she seems very weak, but somehow she survives as her position is much stronger than it looks. Conversely this is punctuated by moments of triumph, when she seems to sweep all before her. This always precedes a major reverse. Yesterday as she closed the Conservative conference with a confident speech she looked strong, though perhaps short of triumphant. In reality she has never looked more vulnerable.
Of course the central issue is Brexit. I have generally given this an optimistic gloss, being one of the few people to say that it is going reasonably well for Mrs May. But there is now serious reason to question her judgement. Her claim that there is no alternative is now in question.
Mrs May has taken up a very risky negotiating strategy. She is sticking to her proposal, usually referred to as “Chequers”, though it looks as it the government has stopped using that word to refer to it. This is a very complex fudge by which Britain accepts EU Single Market product regulation for goods, but not for labour and environmental standards, nor for the movement of workers, and a customs arrangement whereby Britain can collect both its own and EU tariffs at its borders, allowing the easy movement of goods to the EU. The idea is to have an open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and allow the intricate supply chains that have built up between the UK and EU countries to continue. But the problem is that EU leaders are really not happy with this. It looks too much like “have your cake and eat it”, where Britain can undercut EU labour and environmental regulations and compete unfairly. Not to mention getting all the benefits of a customs union while freely negotiating alternative tariffs with non-European partners. Smarting from what they see as the growing nightmare of the pick ‘n mix relationship they have with Switzerland, and worried about signals they might give both to other countries in the union and those just outside, they are anxious to guide the UK down one of the clear institutional models that they have already developed.
That leaves a very dangerous stand-off. If neither side gives way there could be a potentially disastrous “no deal” on 29 March 2019. Some Brexit supporters are quite relaxed about that idea. They assume that a number of side-deals can be done to mitigate the worst impacts, like grounded aircraft, halted medical supplies, non recognition of driving licences and so on. That is much too complacent. Though many of the scare stories spread by Remainers can be dealt with like this, the relationship is much too complex for such deals to go far enough, and it looks a bit like the hated Swiss model anyway. And there is no side deal possible that will prevent huge difficulties for goods crossing borders. The prospect of no-deal is so daunting that it might persuade parliament to go for a further referendum allowing Brexit to be reversed, something that has started to worry Conservatives, to judge how keen they are to rubbish the idea.
The EU is in fact offering two alternative ways forward for Britain after the transition period ends on 31 December 2020 (or perhaps later…). The first is full membership of the Single Market as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA). This has supporters in Britain. It might be bent to accommodate Labour’s “tests” and so allow a parliamentary coalition that excludes most Conservative MPs. But it means that Britain will be a rule-taker from the EU, and continue to allow EU workers in freely. Most of those who voted for Brexit, and even some who didn’t, would surely not support it. The second way forward is to do a free trade deal along the lines of the one done with Canada (referred to as “Canada” or “Canada plus”). This is the real threat to Mrs May, because Tory hardline Brexiteers support it. Much worse, so do many others, as it looks much better than no-deal, as at least there is nearly two years of transition and quite likely more. It is possible that there will be cabinet rebellion – or even a revolt amongst Conservative MPs that turns Mrs May out of the leadership.
Mrs May’s objection to Canada is that it creates a problem with Northern Ireland, as the EU currently insists that there would need to be a boundary of some sort between it and the rest of the UK. The rebels’ calculation is the the EU will give ground on this, not least because a no-deal would have a very hard impact on the Irish Republic. They have even come up with various fudges and fig leaves that might make it viable.
So there is a clear and coherent alternative strategy for Brexit to Mrs May’s. But her position is made weaker by something else. Her remarkable longevity as leader since the fiasco of the 2017 General Election was not just because there was no alternative Brexit strategy, but because there was no alternative leader. Or rather, that the main alternative looked to be Boris Johnson, the former Mayor of London and Foreign Secretary. He was on manoeuvres this week, giving a speech outside the main conference that apparently went down a storm. I have accused Labour’s John McDonnell of advocating candyfloss policies, but Mr Johnson makes him look like a serious civil servant. Now two serious alternatives as leader have now emerged: the Home Secretary Sajid Javid, and the new Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is conspicuously more competent in that role than Mr Johnson ever was. Mr Johnson’s position, meanwhile, is weakening. In a leadership election Tory members make the final choice between the last two candidates selected by MPs. Mr Johnson can’t guarantee being in that top two (a bit like the similarly charismatic, but more competent, Michael Portillo when the system was used the first time). And even if he does make it, the members may well lose their nerve and vote for the alternative. Tory MPs may be prepared to risk starting the selection process.
Such a rebellion is still unlikely before March next year, though, since it is too close to Brexit day. Afterwards it could happen very quickly. They will need to get a move on. The next general election is very winnable for the Conservatives. Brexit will stay in the news for years after next March, but the political sting will be much less, especially if Mrs May can be scapegoated for the worst aspects. Remainers may be energised now, but they will run out of steam once the country has formally left. They are not at all clear on what they want after that – they have barely started to think about it. Labour are vulnerable. They have a leader who is regarded as nice, sincere but ineffective by most people, and as an evil villain by many others. They have some interesting policies but a lot of these haven’t been thought through, and they will wilt under sustained attack. The group of advisers that surround their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, remind me of the tight coterie that surrounded Mrs May before her disastrous election of June 2017: clever but inward looking.
But the Conservatives have weaknesses of their own. Their membership is low and ageing. The Brexit brand, which they have taken ownership of, is toxic to many. A new, younger leader will help with this. But they also need time to prepare for their campaign. The party owed its unexpected victory in 2015 to years of careful preparation; they did so badly in 2017 because they went into it with no preparation at all. So Tory MPs need to get Mrs May out of the way as soon as they can. And then there is all to play for.
As alternatives start to look more viable, Mrs May’s days are surely numbered.