At the end of a day filled with what Saul Bellow called ‘crisis chatter’, what has really changed?

A victory that settles absolutely nothing

Matthew d'Ancona

Matthew d'Ancona says that May’s survival doesn’t really change the fundamental facts of British politics – Brexit is still a mess

12 December 2018 22:38

So now she is a lame duck as well as a zombie. Tonight, Theresa May clung on to the Conservative leadership by a margin that was sufficient but scarcely compelling: 200 votes to 117.

For even that relatively inauspicious margin of victory, she paid a high price. Addressing Tory MPs this afternoon, the Prime Minister signalled that she would not, as she had previously pledged, seek to lead them into the scheduled 2022 general election (though she seems to have left herself a little implicit wriggle-room, in case she has to rush to the country in the next few months).

Like Tony Blair, when he announced in October 2004 that he would seek a full third term but not a fourth, she has launched the official countdown to her own exit from Number Ten, legitimised a semi-official race to succeed her, and entitled every journalist she encounters to ask her: so when are you going, Prime Minister?

This concession merely required her to ditch the magical thinking that has allowed her remaining allies to claim (absurdly) that she could last for more than three further years. Much more important to her remains the official Brexit timetable onto which she has mapped her entire claim to the favour of posterity: it matters to her more than anything that the United Kingdom does indeed leave the EU 107 days hence. This is the task by which she defines herself, her political identity and her prospective legacy.

At the end of a day filled with what Saul Bellow called ‘crisis chatter’, what has really changed? The hardline Brexiteer caucus, the European Research Group, has failed in its mission to oust May from Downing Street and, under the rules, will not get another chance for 12 months. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Steve Baker and their gang have done great damage to the credibility of the Government and to the reputation of their party in the midst of a historic constitutional crisis, but achieved absolutely nothing beyond this pin-striped vandalism. I wonder if they are proud of what they have done, or so blinded by their own ideological confidence that they cannot see how absurd they look this evening (Rees-Mogg continues to demand May’s resignation, as if the vote had not happened).

As I predicted in today’s Evening Standard, plenty of Tories filed out after Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, disclosed the results of the secret ballot, to declare that the PM’s authority had indeed been secured by this moment of reckoning and that she could now proceed to Brussels tomorrow much better-placed to extract final concessions from our 27 soon-to-ex-EU partners.

It is the most egregious myth of our populist times – a lie, to be candid – that there are simple solutions to complex problems. So this suggestion – that May’s technical victory tonight strengthens her in any authentic sense – needs to be headed off at the pass. Forced to postpone this week’s ‘meaningful vote’ by the Commons on the 585-page deal, and now to face the verdict of her own parliamentary party, the PM is barely in office tonight, let alone in power.

There are strong echoes of the 1995 leadership contest (fought under different rules) in which John Major clung on, but was not supported by a third of his parliamentary party. His survival helped to ensure that the electorate did not just reward Blair with victory two years later, but with a stunning landslide. Mindful of this precedent and her undertaking today, May’s party will never let her near the hustings again. She is a holographic premier, a diaphanous leader through whose image can already be seen a future marred by brutal squabbles within and beyond the Tory stockade.

What has not changed is the intractability of the Brexit process itself – a much more important question than the identity of the Conservative leader. There exists no stable Commons majority for any of the options on offer: May’s deal, ‘Norway plus’, ‘Canada plus plus’, or any of the other permutations suggested by the many factions into which the Commons has fragmented.

There exists no stable Commons majority for any of the Brexit options on offer.

Clearly, though mysteriously, the PM believes that she will be able to pull a rabbit out of the hat in Brussels. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, and a politician scrupulous in his use of language, was emphatic on Sky News that she would be seeking ‘legally binding changes, not just warm words’ on the now-notorious ‘backstop’ – the proposed device that would keep the UK in the Customs Union while the vexed question of the Irish border is resolved. This mechanism is absolute anathema to Brexiteers and to the Democratic Unionist Party that keeps the Conservatives in government. It is hard to believe that May has secured – or could secure – concessions from the EU that will assuage their entrenched hostility. In this respect, as in so many others, the next 36 hours are critical.

But do not underestimate the unpersuadable hard core of Tories who support, with ever more fanfare, what they euphemistically call a ‘managed no-deal’ exit. The amendment secured by Dominic Grieve that enables the Commons to alter any new Brexit proposal brought forward by the Government should, in theory, act as a dam against any such flood of madness. But the volatility of contemporary politics is such that even this is not fool-proof. We could yet crash out of the EU: it is, at the very least, conceivable, and that is bad enough.

If the Tories resemble a nest of temporarily-sedated scorpions, Labour looks like a herd of deer paralysed by the lights of history. It is extraordinary that, after such a humiliating three days for the PM, Jeremy Corbyn cannot even steel himself to call a vote of confidence in the Commons itself. He talks endlessly of the needs for a general election to liberate the nation from Tory tyranny. Yet when does he intend to will the means?

Last night, Richard Burgon, the Shadow Justice Secretary, lamely dismissed the notion of a confidence vote in the Government as ‘gesture politics’ – less than an hour after 37 per cent of Tory MPs had tried to sack their own leader. How bad does Labour need it to get before Corbyn dares to strike? If not now, when?

So the polity remains in desperate shape tonight. There been much heat, and no light. The trajectory of the nation is no clearer than it was this morning when Sir Graham announced that a leadership vote would be held. It is hard to see any means of breaking the Brexit impasse other than the People’s Vote that neither May nor Corbyn is willing to embrace. The PM limps on to fight another day. The rest is embarrassed silence.

At the end of a day filled with what Saul Bellow called ‘crisis chatter’, what has really changed?