23 October 2018

Theresa May’s Brexit by numbers


To fans of Robert Caro, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Lyndon B. Johnson, the dictum is a familiar one: the first rule of politics? Learn to count.

Has Theresa May read the four published volumes of Caro’s mammoth examination of the life of the 36th president? No one would blame the prime minister if she claimed not to have the time. And in truth, there’s very little in the post-war, civil rights era of Texas politics that could usefully apply to the UK in 2018. Except for the counting.

Her opponents, in her own party and beyond it, seem to be spending a great deal of time with their calculators. Each day brings new claims that the number of letters demanding a vote of confidence in May’s leadership is nearing the point at which Sir Graham Brady, the likeable, efficient and – most importantly – discrete chair of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, will be obliged to inform Number 10 that a vote is on.

Those calculations have proved somewhat awry so far. LBJ would not be impressed. Anonymous members of the European Research Group (ERG) claim that this could be the week that the magic figure of 48 letter received is reached, representing the 20 per cent of the Parliamentary Conservative Party needed to spark the confidence motion (note: not to spark a leadership contest, as some commentators have claimed. More on that later).

The problem is that the claim – that this is the crucial week – has been made on an almost weekly basis since before the summer recess. And still Mrs May ploughs on, apparently unaffected by the intensity of the criticism levelled at her preferred template for Brexit.

It seems likely that at some point, however, those broken clocks sitting behind the Prime Minister in the Commons will turn out to be right, the threshold will be reached and a vote called. This is the point at which rebels’ counting skills will need to be honed to perfection (and their recent performance does not bode well). For Mrs May to lose a vote of confidence, 158 of her colleagues will be required to vote against her. If this happens, she retires from the field, fatally wounded but no doubt with a degree of relief that will make up for at least some of the hurt. A new leadership contest will then be then called.

But if, as seems more likely, a vote of confidence results in Mrs May receiving the backing of more than half of her fractious parliamentary party, the threat of a further challenge is lifted for the next 12 months. That would be more than enough time for the prime minister to lead the country through to our post-EU future next March.

This would still leave the most important counting exercise of all: can the whips get whatever deal Mrs May negotiates with Brussels (if there is to be one at all) through the Commons? At this point, counting skills may only serve to deliver the unwelcome message to the Prime Minister that the deal is going to be rejected, particularly if she is unsuccessful in allaying DUP fears of a customs union stitch-up that could leave Northern Ireland in closer regulatory alignment with the Republic of Ireland than with Great Britain.

Could her leadership survive such a blow? Those who say it could not were probably among those who predicted that, having lost the parliamentary majority she inherited from her predecessor after calling an unnecessary, early general election, she would have to resign. But she didn’t, did she? Theresa May’s belligerent tenacity in the face of public humiliation has become something of a lodestar in the political firmament these last couple of years.

There are other numbers that are relevant in all of this, and the counting can be undertaken by anyone, even if they’re not political professionals. The latest YouGov poll puts Theresa May’s Conservatives, with its allegedly unpopular leader, divided cabinet and unwhippable Parliamentary Party five points clear of the Labour Party.

Jeremy Corbyn’s impressive performance at the 2017 general election, when he led his party from the high 20s in the polls to almost neck-and-neck with the Tories by polling day, resulted in a popularity bounce that was sustained for more than a year. Yet today, after more than eight years of Conservative-led government, with its accompanying austerity, a Brexit process that a Remain-supporting PM never wanted in the first place and party wings that no longer even bother hiding their contempt for each other, the polls suggest it is far from over for the Conservatives under Theresa May.

She would be foolish to interpret these latest numbers as an explicit endorsement of her own leadership rather than what they actually are – a damning verdict on the official Opposition. But given the headaches that all those other counting exercises must be giving her and her advisers, it must be reassuring to be able to bash those calculator keys and come up with a figure that actually makes the Prime Minister happy.

Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and the author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.