In order to understand why Theresa May’s predicament may not be quite so hopeless as the press now assumes, it is worth trying to think one’s way into the mind of a third-rate Conservative MP. This unfashionable figure in his late fifties is realistic enough to know that he is more or less completely unemployable in any other capacity than legislator. His self-esteem is deeply bound up with being an MP.
So he knows the Conservative Party has to stick together. Divided it cannot possibly win the next general election. After the split over the Corn Laws in 1846, it took 28 years for the party once more to win a parliamentary majority. All Conservative leaders since Peel have “felt it their duty, at all costs and at almost any sacrifice, to avoid repeating Peel’s action” (as Robert Blake puts it in his life of Bonar Law).
Our third-rate MP may not have this history at his fingertips — though he can remember more of it than you would think from his unintellectual demeanour — but he knows in his bones that the tribe must stick together, or it is doomed. That is why he let out such whoops at 9 pm last night, when Sir Graham Brady announced that the party “does have confidence” in its leader. These were not so much whoops of triumph, as of relief.
When Sir Graham proceeded to read out the figures, the whooping turned out to have been premature, for to have 117 MPs declare their lack of confidence in the Prime Minister shows that there is, after all, a deep split in the parliamentary party. Nor has a leadership contender yet emerged who has a reasonable chance of reuniting it. The European Reform Group does not seem to have managed to make up its mind between Boris Johnson, David Davis and Dominic Raab.
Which means, our Conservative MP thinks, that there is no alternative in the short term to sticking with Mrs May. He wants her to succeed: an elementary point which tends to be omitted from the coverage in the press. For the story is the split, the lack of any majority for her deal, and about a hundred highly skilled political journalists are toiling day and night to provide the evidence for it. Their coverage is not wrong, but it is incomplete. For it tends to omit or downplay the unglamorous desire to work out some just about acceptable compromise. Our Conservative MP wants very much to be persuaded that a way forward has been found, for he knows that if his party makes a complete mess of Brexit, he can say goodbye to his seat.
But what of the Europeans? Can’t we rely on them to keep the crisis going by being utterly intransigent? I do not know, but I rather think they too would like a deal. It does not suit Brussels or Berlin or Dublin to say so, but not having a deal would to put it mildly be more inconvenient than making the quite modest adjustments required to settle the remaining differences.
In January 1963, General de Gaulle shocked the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, by vetoing British membership of the European Economic Community, leading Macmillan to confide to his diary: “All our policies at home and abroad are in ruins.” De Gaulle added insult to injury by quoting a line from Edith Piaf: “Ne pleurez pas, milord.”
Will Emmanuel Macron want to inflict a similar humiliation on Mrs May? And even if he wants to, is he in a position to do so? Does Calais want to sever its profitable connection with Dover because Paris has decided to humiliate London? To put the question in that way is to realise that the chances of a deal are far better than the media, with its insatiable yearning for danger, drama and cliff edges, is likely to admit even to itself.
So let Mrs May stumble her way through this ghastly negotiation. That is what our Conservative MP thinks. He hopes there may even be some sort of peace dividend when the dire predictions of disaster turn out to be incorrect. She could even be the hero of the hour.
But she cannot be allowed to lead the party into another general election. On that, all Tory MPs are at one, and she survived yesterday’s vote in part by conceding that she cannot fight another election. So the party can now start looking around for a leader of proven ability as a campaigner, who is able to appeal to all wings of the party, and can offer even third-rate Tory MPs the best possible chance of holding on to their seats. The nearer the next general election comes, the greater the incentive there will be for the party to surmount its ideological differences, and to unite behind a new leader. The profoundly unconservative idea of refusing to serve under Boris Johnson, or indeed under anyone else chosen by the party as a whole, will have to be abandoned.