LONDON — British politics is catching its breath after an utterly chaotic day in Westminster.
On Monday, Theresa May suffered two resignations from her government, ordered her MPs to vote against her own Brexit policy, and triggered a huge row between the two wings of her party that could yet scupper the entire Brexit process and her very survival as prime minister.
With May reportedly on the verge of a vote of no confidence in her leadership, government whips will today seek to break up parliament five days early in a last-ditch attempt to avert a challenge.
So can May really survive and what the hell is happening right now in British politics?
What is all the fuss about?
Earlier this month, May used a meeting of ministers at Chequers, her official Buckinghamshire retreat, to unveil her plan for the future relationship she believes the United Kingdom should have with the European Union.
The plan is controversial, especially for Brexiteers, as it proposes staying closely linked to the EU for trade and customs after Brexit. David Davis and Boris Johnson quit their roles as Brexit secretary and foreign secretary following the agreement.
In particular, May’s suggestion that the UK should collect tariffs on goods headed for the EU on the bloc’s behalf after Brexit was strongly opposed, as it would effectively leave the UK permanently attached to EU rules.
Because of this a group of Brexit-supporting Conservative MPs led by Jacob Rees-Mogg — known in Westminster as the European Research Group – came up with four amendments designed to kill this particular aspect of May’s Brexit plan.
They tabled the amendments to the Taxation (cross-border trade) bill, which was put to MPs on Monday.
The government initially agreed to accept all but one of the four amendments put forward by the Brexiteers, telling journalists in Westminster that the amendments didn’t affect the prime minister’s Brexit plans.
However, the fourth amendment, which would prohibit the government from collecting „certain taxes or duties on behalf of territory without reciprocity,” appeared to destroy the central crux of the prime minister’s post-Brexit customs proposal. As MPs headed towards the vote it appeared difficult to see how May could accept this.
However, after crunch talks between the whips office and Conservative Brexiteers, the government U-turned and accepted this fourth amendment as well.
„We have accepted them because they are consistent with the white paper,” a spokesperson for the government told baffled reporters on Monday afternoon.
Where is the chaos?
Here is where things got messy.
The government’s decision to accept all four amendments tabled by Brexiteers meant the updated legislation contradicted the government’s Brexit policy. That’s right — May was basically asking MPs to contradict her own policy.
The confusion was summed up neatly by a Conservative source, who told BI:
„Looks like the government are accepting amendments that go against government policy, saying that they don’t go against government policy, but they were tabled by people who are against government policy.
„So MPs are being asked by the government to support amendments that are against government policy and side with people who are against the government policy in support of the government?”
So why did May do this?
The prime minister was forced to back down to Rees-Mogg in order to avoid what would have been a hugely embarrassing defeat for the government after what has already been the most difficult week in her premiership to date.
However, Conservative Remainers reacted with fury to May’s capitulation to the Brexiteers.
In a memorable speech to the House of Commons, pro-EU Conservative MP Anna Soubry said: „This government is in grave danger of not just losing the plot but losing a considerable amount of support from the people of this country unless we get Brexit right.”
In fact, pro-EU MPs in May’s Conservatives were so annoyed that they decided to vote against the government.
14 rebelled — including Soubry, Nicky Morgan and Ken Clarke — and came very close to inflicting a humiliating defeat on the prime minister. The bill passed by 305 votes to 302, with a small handful of pro-Brexit Labour MPs pushing May over the line. The Labour MPs who backed the government were Kate Hoey, Frank Field and Graham Stringer.
So who resigned?
Guto Bebb became the latest government minister to resign over Brexit.
The Conservative MP for Aberconwy quit his role as defence minister in order to express his opposition to hard Brexit and vote against the amended bill. He followed Conservative MP Scott Mann, who also resigned from the government earlier in the day, in order to vote for the Brexiteer amendment which the government later accepted anyway.
It only gets more complicated. On Tuesday, pro-EU members of the Conservative party — sometimes known as the „rebels” — are set to seek revenge on their pro-Brexit colleagues when the House of Commons votes on another piece of legislation: the trade bill.
They plan to attach an amendment to the bill which would force the government to negotiate a full customs union with the EU if it hasn’t secured completely frictionless trade by January 2019. The vote is expected at around 6pm (BST).
What can May do next?
The events of this week mean that it’s looking increasingly difficult to see how May will be able to get a final Brexit deal through Parliament at the end of Article 50 negotiations — if indeed there is a deal to get through.
In the event of a deal being rejected, this would leave May with six incredibly distasteful options:
- Crash out of the EU without a deal triggering political and economic chaos.
- Trigger another general election and risk losing to Jeremy Corbyn.
- Seek an extension to the Brexit process, triggering calls of betrayal.
- Call a second Brexit referendum.
- Trigger a vote of confidence in her own leadership in order to face down the rebels.
- Resign and leave the mess to somebody else.
So far the prime minister has publicly ruled out every single one of these options, with the exception of leaving the EU without a deal.
For this reason, the future of Brexit negotiations and the very survival of May’s leadership now look in a far more precarious position than at any time in her premiership.