Yesterday was one of the strangest days in politics I’ve ever seen. In the midst of two cabinet resignations, left-wing commentators had a field day talking about how the end of the government was nigh, while right-wing commentators oddly tried to bring that about themselves, going on and on about the death of Brexit and how hundreds of Tory MPs were going to vote against May’s deal. Meanwhile, Theresa May herself again had two of her most senior cabinet members quit on her in the same day – and somehow emerged from it much stronger as a result. Make no mistake about it: the prime minister is in a much more secure position today than she was prior to Chequers. Given statements by the figures involved, it looks like we’ll have no more cabinet resignations in the immediate future, however much Jacob Rees-Mogg will wish them to occur. She was greeted with rapturous applause at the 1922 Committee meeting, as backbench MPs, both Remainers and Leavers, formed a metaphorical iron guard around her. And I finally get what she’s going for here. It may not work out in the end, but I do get it.
She bet everything on Chequers. Bet that she could carry the vast majority of the cabinet with her. Her ploy with the phones and the cab threat actually worked – the delay in resigning did take enough of the sting out of it. If Davis and Boris had walked at Chequers, others might have followed and May’s position could have become quickly untenable. In the end, she lost only Davis and Boris, easily her two most underperforming ministers (in the case of Boris, ludicrously and painfully so). She effortlessly replaced both positions on the same day the resignations were announced. I speculated yesterday afternoon that Fox would get the FCO job thinking May would have to do so in order to keep the wolves at bay; in the end, it wasn’t even necessary. She in fact felt secure enough in post to appoint a Remainer.
Theresa May’s politics are not mine. Beyond the citizen of nowhere shtick rubbing me the wrong way, her soupy blend of Blue Labourism, anti-immigrant sentiment/practice and mild, lame nostalgia is very far away from my own personal beliefs. Yet one of the main things I’ve always held against her was my perception of her as weak – and Chequers and its aftermath is one of the ballsiest things a PM has done in my lifetime. It even played to her robotic persona, as she seemed totally unflappable in the House yesterday, acting like everything was going to plan. I think that’s because it was.
She has succeeded in getting her party to agree to a much softer Brexit than anything that had really been discussed openly before. She has solidified her cabinet and rid it of its weakest elements. As an added bonus, Corbyn looked mostly irrelevant yesterday because as much as he put his back into it, the truth is that Labour’s position on Brexit is totally incoherent. Was Corbyn really having a go at May for not being Brexity enough? Is Labour unintentionally positioning themselves as the more Brexity party of the main two? Is this part of May’s plan?
The prime minister still has many problems ahead. The biggest is that the EU is very unlikely to agree to the Chequers plan and more compromise will have to be made, meaning she may face another round of cabinet resignations, this time round more than can be absorbed. Given Chequers, she might well have thought ahead for this already. In conclusion, I can’t help but finally be impressed by May and I think a lot of the commentariat have got this all wrong, usually due to ideological allegiance. For instance, I heard a lot about how, after yesterday, a soft Brexit seems almost impossible. I think the opposite is true.