By Stephen Fisher.
Yesterday Theresa May won a vote of confidence in her leadership of the Conservative party, and she also promised to step down before the scheduled 2022 general election. Following the logic of my arguments here and here, both events increase the chances that she will eventually facilitate another referendum on Brexit. She now has more freedom for political manoeuvre and less of a future political career to lose from a U-turn.
In essence the core of my previous argument is that Theresa May should want to persuade the people to back her deal if parliament won’t because she believes it is the best thing for Britain. If not that, then she would at least prefer a referendum to a no-deal Brexit that she believes, “would cause significant economic damage to parts of our country who can least afford to bear the burden.”
There is, I believe, a latent parliamentary majority for another referendum. Theresa May now has the power to facilitate its emergence without fear of a challenge to her leadership of the Conservative Party. She will want to avoid a party split or hardline Brexiteers voting no-confidence in their own government. That can be done if she earnestly tries to achieve reassurances from the EU on the backstop, tries to get approval for her deal in parliament, and then tries to get her deal approved by the people in a referendum. There is also the possibility of this ingenious mechanism suggested by Jolyon Maugham. (There may be others too, I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer.) My main point is that if the prime minister acts in good faith and calls a referendum as a last resort, it will be harder for her enemies to justify bringing her government down in response.
Is Theresa May completely safe?
Under Tory party rules Theresa May cannot now be challenged for the party leadership for a year. She does not have absolute security. If she went totally berserk the party could find a way of removing her and still remaining in government. There is no constitutional requirement that the prime minister be the leader of the largest governing party. If she made herself unpopular enough she could be totally side lined; formally but not really leader.
The more realistic threat she faces is that some of the European Research Group (ERG) might be more committed to Brexit than the continuation of a Conservative led government. This is despite the Tories famous focus on staying in power described by Tim Bale here. If the prime minister pivots towards a referendum, then the ERG, fearful of a Remain vote, might table a motion of no confidence, or support the opposition in one of their own. In so doing the ERG would be hoping either for Theresa May to resign in favour a hardline Brexiteer led government, or that while there was a general election the Brexit clock will run down and parliament would be unable to avoid a no-deal Brexit before the end of March.
The first of these would probably be avoided because Theresa May probably would not want to yield to a hardline Brexiteer, and even if she did there is a good chance that there would be enough Tory Remainers so disgusted by the actions of the ERG, and so compelled to push their own agenda in response, that they could be willing to support a general election or even a Labour led administration willing to offer a referendum.
To counter the second ERG hope, the EU has said they would grant an extension to Article 50 in the event of a general election. Furthermore, it is extremely unlikely that any new administration following an election would deliver a form of Brexit more attractive to the ERG than May’s deal. Not least of the considerations here is the problem of what Brexit policy the Conservatives would offer in a crisis general election. They could not coherently advocate both May’s deal and a no-deal Brexit. But, as John Curtice has shown, Conservative voters are roughly evenly divided between the two in their preferences. Whichever the party choses it disappoints half their voters and might well lead some of their MPs to split. Meanwhile, although the Labour leadership would come under considerable pressure to advocate Remain, Labour might continue their policy of renegotiation, with a referendum as a fall-back position if a good enough deal is not achievable. Even if for the political commentators it would seem somewhat incredible, and for Labour Remainers it would be frustrating, it might well prove more attractive than May’s deal for the Leavers who formerly voted Labour that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell want to win back.
So if the ERG bring down their own government the most likely outcome is a Labour led administration that eventually presides over a referendum. The ERG would therefore be worse off than they would be letting Theresa May call a referendum. At least with a Conservative prime minister they should have a better chance of getting no-deal or a hard Brexit on the ballot. At the moment, it is hard to see what strategies are still available to the ERG, other than trying to persuade the prime minister that no deal is better than her deal.
Can she avoid a split?
If the ERG were to take a different view and a major party split is prompted by Theresa May facilitating a referendum, she might be blamed for the split, but it would not necessarily be her fault. A split might be unavoidable. As I’ve described above, there is a good chance a general election would cause a split, and that would be true whatever prompted that general election. If Theresa May cannot get her deal approved and also uses her power over the parliamentary agenda to thwart attempts to legislate for a second referendum, that too could provoke a split. It may well be that she should do what she thinks is right and hope her party can heal itself after she has gone.