May survives but parliament is now her master
How's this for an angle on Theresa May's "victory" in her confidence vote? Former Chancellor and arch Remainer George Osborne is in the bizarre position of being outside parliament, but probably having the loyalty of a larger caucus of MPs than the sitting Conservative prime minister. Brexit is in peril, make no mistake about it
Theresa May has survived her confidence vote, but, with most of her authority now transferred to Parliament, rarely has a British prime minister been so weak.
The parliamentary Conservative Party is still the party of David Cameron and George Osborne. The overwhelming majority of the 2010 and 2015 intake were adherents of Cameron’s doctrine of progressive conservatism.
And it must be remembered that the majority of these MPs actively campaigned to remain part of the European Union, which was of course the official policy of the Conservative Party leadership only a little over two years ago.
In addition to this, as he was preparing for a leadership bid towards the end of a second Cameron administration, George Osborne had been influential in the selection of candidates, many of whom were personally loyal to him. So, Osborne finds himself in the bizarre position of being outside parliament, but probably having the loyalty of a larger caucus of MPs than the sitting Conservative prime minister and party leader.
These MPs were manifesto bound to support Brexit in 2017, and almost to a person supported Mrs May’s deal. As illustrated by Cameron confidante Danny Finkelstein in his column in today’s Times, this caucus is already using the alleged obstructionism of certain clean-Brexit MPs as an excuse to cancel Brexit and back away from that manifesto commitment.
They will argue the following: “We tried to make Brexit work. We did all we could. We were willing to go half way. But the Brexiteers broke Brexit.”
As for Labour, Jeremy Corbyn is a not-so secret Brexiteer, mainly because he thinks corporatist Brussels would thwart his dream of "socialism in one country".
In many respects, Mr Corbyn’s second leadership election against Owen Smith was precipitated by a feeling amongst his backbenches that his apathetic approach to the EU referendum was largely responsible for the Brexit vote, which was won not solely due to the vote of Tories in the Shires, but blue-collar northern labour voters in places like Sunderland.
He has it within his power to generate a parliamentary majority for a People’s Vote. The SNP, Liberal Democrats, and Plaid Cymru have all signed up, and with a handful of Tory MPs like Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve, a People’s Vote would easily be able to command a majority in the House.
As Britain has not had a minority government since the 1970s, the British public and the political class have become accustomed to a presidential style of leadership, run chiefly by number 10 at the centre. We are now in a situation where legislative politics becomes the order of the day. Theresa May has hitherto behaved much like her predecessors in terms of her autocratic leadership style when the only effective way to govern is as a parliamentary deal maker.
The days when Tony Blair could openly and happily declare in his farewell speech that he was never much of a House of Commons man are over. The House of Commons has in the last month re-exerted its supremacy, and we will have to get used to it.
No one understands this more than George Osborne, an avid fan of Robert A Caro’s biographies of Lyndon Johnson and someone who is known to quote Johnson’s maxim that the important thing in life is to know how to count.
It would not be surprising if the Evening Standard editor were now on the phone to his friends in parliament, nudging them and the country towards the second referendum that the Remainers crave.
And who could doubt that a second referendum is now a distinct possiblity? After the humiliating Commons defeat of Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement, many MPs will feel they are freed from their manifesto commitment to deliver Brexit: they can now say they “did all they conceivably could, but Parliament was unable to resolve the issue.”
Corbyn has tried everything to stop the Labour Party supporting a People’s Vote, but the pressure from the likes of Keir Starmer may now be overwhelmimg.
Do not be surprised if a second referendum doesn’t creep up on us within the next fortnight.
Dominic Grieve has already set the legislative wheels into motion. The pro-European Tory tabled two bills in the House of Commons earlier today in order to turn the People’s Vote into reality. The first bill relates to the preparations for a referendum and the second mandates that it be carried out.
Traditionally, this would go to the back of the queue. But with an activist Speaker willing to depart from precedent and to challenge the primacy of the executive in submitting Commons business, it is not out of the question.
This is now the most likely scenario, and whereas in the first referendum the Leave campaign had spent two years building an impressive infrastructure while David Cameron tried to run a campaign on the back of a sticky note, this time the situation is reversed. Leave is hopelessly unprepared, while Remain is in pole position.
It is also worth noting that some of the main forces behind the initial Leave campaign may not be able to return to the fray in any new referendum. The investigation into Aaron Banks takes him off the table, and as the board of Vote Leave is currently still under investigation by the Electoral Commission they would be ineligible to hold any role in a potential Leave 2 campaign.
It appears that in every significant way, the Brexit camp, of which this columnist is a personal supporter, has got everything wrong since the referendum.
A second referendum could easily see Leave out-organised and out-messaged.
This is certainly the hope of Donald Tusk who in the immediate aftermath of yesterday’s vote called for Brexit to be stopped. He and the rest of the EU will make whatever adjustments are necessary to pave the way for a second referendum. Current deadlines quickly become irrelevant.
So, really, don't be surprised if we end up having a referendum in July. Now that would be a summer blockbuster.
Patrick Sullivan is the Political Editor of The Commentator @PatJSullivan
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