Theresa May is playing well off a weak hand

Five Labour votes on Tuesday, plus really poor whipping on Monday night  that allowed  the Lib Dem leader and his predecessor to miss the vote  are two crucial factors that helped save  Theresa May’s  bacon this week.  The Commons will stagger on until Tuesday after all, as the government didn’t dare press for an early recess today after their hair’s breadth wins earlier this week.  Internal opposition to May has come from both sides, first  from Brexiteers opposing the Chequers plan to whom she surrendered;  then from Remainers  furious with her for surrendering.

Should  she have stood up to Rees Mogg and co on Monday and dared them to challenge her for the leadership when they were clearly not ready? With such an- shall we call it?  undeveloped programme as the Chequers plan, she was probably  wise not to force the crisis, preferring instead to squeeze down the number of dissidents and believing rightly that she retained  the initiative, if only just .As Churchill once said about votes, ” one is enough.”  To deliver little more, the trigger was fingered on the nuclear  option of calling an election, but that’s a ploy that can only be played once. The Brexiteers may soon gather the numbers to challenge her leadership but not to topple her.

The first question for the recess and the conference season that follows is this: does the opposition from both sides in her party cancel each other out and leave her bruised but precariously in charge?   Secondly, as opposition parties helped her survive this week, is this the harbinger of a future coalition – formal or informal – carved out of the overall Commons majority in favour of a soft Brexit including a customs union?

Splits within Labour have been widening too,  not only  for propping up May, but over over the party’s bizarre inability to agree on what constitutes anti-semitism. While this is a powerfully emotive issue on its merits, it also serves as a proxy for reviving the centrist discontent over Corby’s leadership which otherwise looks pretty secure. It is possible therefore that a failure to come back to Parliament in November or December with agreed withdrawal terms could create a platform for a cross party alliance, where today we have only splinters. The problem  with such an alliance is that shadowy as the concept is, it would  comprise of minorities albeit large ones from each party and therefore  unstable.

The other factor is the Conservative leadership. Brexiteer discontent with May is rising. But who is the challenger to unite the party enough either to create a viable alternative to the Facilitated Customs Arrangement and stand a chance of having it accepted by Brussels? Boris Johnson will make his own pitch later today but he looks like soiled goods. Could Jeremy Hunt or Sajid Javid appear as convincing alternatives to May? Much would depend on the circumstances. If she fought and lost a forced leadership election, then perhaps so. But could either of them distance themselves sufficiently  from the Chequers policy? In the political storm the weakness of the  Chequers plan has been almost forgotten and  it will take fresh ingenuity not least from the Commission, to make it acceptable.

What would be the winning pitch of a successor? To lead the Conservatives towards a hard Brexit or form an arrangement with anti-Corbyn Labour MPs in the direction of a customs union?  While the difference is fundamental, the political choice for an alternative Conservative leader is far from clear. That is the best possible reason for Theresa May to survive.  She has made the essential choice for others to follow, develop or reject.

In the meantime we gamely look forward to her belated visit to our shores, with the underlying feeling that we are likely to be disappointed.

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London