The eventual, inevitable downfall of Theresa May could well prove to have been triggered by post-election reports from Tory constituencies whose incumbents either lost or only narrowly survived. A good example was Canterbury, where the decent, ultra-loyalist Sir Julian Brazier was ordered not to campaign in his own constituency but to prop up Conservative support in Eltham. He lost by 187 votes. He said, with gentlemanly understatement: “I’m not going to blame anyone else.” A London Tory agent recalled how he was ordered to push through letterboxes election-day flyers urging people to vote for “hard Brexit” in areas which had
voted 70 per cent Remain. His staff were told by householders that they had already voted – for Labour.
And then there was the PM’s “Maybot” response to the Grenfell tower block disaster, which accelerated the mood of rebellion amongst local Tory party organisations across the country. The reaction from May’s administration was typically, and farcically, Maywellian. Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom, who chickened out of last year’s Tory Leadership contest, giving Mrs May a clear run, insisted that “The Prime Minister has done a fantastic job in bringing the country back to a good place since she’s been the leader and the Prime Minister. She is absolutely determined to continue and she has the backing of her party.”
Asked whether Mrs May would lead the party into next election, she responded: “I don’t look into the future,” adding “I think the Prime Minister will lead the Brexit negotiations.”
On the Brexit negotiations Mrs Leadsom said it was “perfectly possible” to negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union in the next two years. “When you have politicians right across the EU and in the United Kingdom who share the desire for a successful outcome with low tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, free trade between ourselves, cooperation on security and so on, it should be perfectly possible to meet the time frame,” she said. These people are living in denial, in public at least.
Then it became clear that the lame duck premier’s legislative programme was notable only for what she left out after the dismal general election campaign left her with a minority government. Out went disastrous manifesto pledges on the dementia tax social care shake-up, the return of more grammar schools, the axing of the triple lock pensions uprating and means-testing winter fuel payments. Out too were her proposed cap on domestic fuel bills, scrapping free school meals and reversing the fox hunting ban.
The 27-bill Queen’s Speech was dominated by Brexit, including the Great Repeal Bill – which will scrap the 1972 European Communities Act and end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – and copying some existing EU legislation to the UK statute book.
The main bill would give the UK Parliament temporary authority to amend laws that do not “operate appropriately” after Brexit while existing decision-making powers devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be maintained pending further discussion on “lasting common frameworks”. In total, seven separate pieces of legislation are proposed to anticipate the end of EU jurisdiction and introduce national policies in key sectors.
On immigration, a bill will legislate for the end of free movement from the EU and make the status of EU nationals and family members subject to UK law. Although there are no specific details about a new system, ministers say they will be able to “control” numbers while attracting the “brightest and the best”.
The UK envisages giving all EU citizens the right to stay after the UK’s exit – due on 30 March 2019 – and granting those resident for at the least five years the same rights to welfare, pensions and education as UK citizens. The offer received a mixed response from EU leaders, to say the least, and Ms May caved in to the EU on its attempt to force an immediate start to talks on future trade.
MPs from all parties are already planning an alliance to defeat Mrs May’s plans for a hard Brexit by amending future legislation to force ministers to listen to business groups and to show the EU that Parliament wants a “softer” exit. One Conservative MP told the Independent that the aim was to give confidence to “bullied” ministers who are reluctant to “speak out”, despite sharing the view that the PM plans put Britain on the road to disaster. Another pressed the importance of convincing Brussels that Parliament can present a different, more EU-friendly policy to that of the Government. “It would really show how power has shifted if Parliament can coordinate itself – and that’s not impossible,” the MP said.
Pro-EU Tory Anna Soubry, who has proved to be one of Mrs May’s toughest critics, said: “We are talking to each other and will continue to talk to each other – this is something that transcends normal party political considerations. It doesn’t have to be about forcing votes, but it may come to that. Certainly, the threat of losing a vote will weigh very heavily on the Government’s mind.”
Top target will be the Immigration Bill, unveiled in the Queen’s Speech, because the extent of new controls could be crucial in determining how close Britain can stay to the single market. Some Tories have been in contact with some of the 34 Labour MPs who challenged Jeremy Corbyn to change course by fighting to stay in the single market.
Chris Leslie, a former Labour minister, said: “There are discussions informally and my door is always open to MPs from any party, because we have got to put the country first.” Fellow Labour MP Chuka Umunna said: “I know there are many Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and others who reject the Prime Minister’s plan for a chaotic, ideological Brexit, and agree with me that working people will be better off by the UK staying in the single market and customs union.”
Sir Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat leadership contender, has also spoken of how “tribal differences between the parties have broken down”, as Brexit looms. And former Tory cabinet minister Ken Clarke made clear his determination to put together a “sensible cross-party majority” to head off the economic damage from refusing to compromise in the exit talks. He believes the Commons could “easily command” the future agenda, if MPs put aside party rivalries and worked together. “Let us show that we can rise above things. I am glad to know that channels are already open to the Liberals and the Labour Party – as well as the Scottish National Party, I am sure,” he said.