Theresa May buckles up for make-or-break Brexit week
If the past seven days have seen torrid twists in the fortunes of Prime Minister Theresa May, the next week will probably determine if her tenure is best measured in hours or months.
The British leader will spend three days in Brussels negotiating the country’s deal to leave the EU. Before that, her officials will be locked in talks that are expected to run through the night.
Mrs May has a crucial Cabinet meeting on Tuesday at which any one of, or possibly all four, Brexit rebels could walk out in protest.
It must seem like a lifetime ago when, on September 29, Mrs May awoke to the most positive newspaper headlines she had seen since the Conservative leader called an ill-fated general election in June last year.
Mrs May had just delivered a speech that was at turns self-deprecating and combative at a Conservative party conference, and which suggested she hoped to stay in office beyond March 29 next year, when Britain leaves the EU.
She came out swinging against her two greatest opponents, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and her former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, and landed hits on both. She also laid out economic spending plans that would lead Britain out of its age of austerity next year.
But just a week later, Mrs May was back to square one.
The front pages of the newspapers revealed how the Democratic Unionist Party – on which she relies for a parliamentary majority – was threatening to bring down her government if she agreed a deal with the EU that left Northern Ireland in the single market, the so-called backstop.
Mr Johnson popped up on Twitter to decry the proposal as “making the UK a permanent EU colony”.
And fellow Conservative MP Mark Pritchard threateningly pointed out that if “a vacancy for PM did arise, the process need not take more than two working weeks – four days in Commons and six days with membership. It does not need to be an overly long process”.
Talk is already turning to the 48 letters of no-confidence Conservative MPs would need to lodge with their party’s hierarchy in order to trigger a leadership challenge against Mrs May.
“I don’t think there’s a real threat at this point,” wrote James Forsyth, of The Spectator magazine. “There is more of a threat that I think Downing Street expected right after the conference. The government seems in a proper crisis.”
The prime minister ended last week by briefing her Cabinet in select groups about where the EU negotiations were going as far as the UK remaining in the Customs union but not the single market, possibly into 2021 or even 2022.
This position is deemed untenable by senior pro-Brexit ministers.
Forsyth wrote that when the proposals were presented to the full Cabinet on Tuesday,
Mrs May will have to decide if she should call the DUP’s bluff on the Northern Irish backstop
“the expectation in Westminster is that there will be one or two resignations over the further concessions Mrs May wants to make on the backstop”.
With the prime minister set to fly to Brussels on Wednesday for three days of crucial talks with fellow EU leaders, intended to thrash out the Northern Ireland situation, she also faces her weekly Commons showdown with Mr Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Questions.
The Labour leader has begun to enjoy success in these encounters in recent months. Against a backdrop of ministers quitting and political chaos, a strong performance here could send Mrs May off to Belgium with even loyal MPs questioning her continued survival.
And things could yet get even worse for Mrs May as the DUP, whose 10 MPs vote with the government after an agreement reached following the election, has begun to flex its muscles over the issue.
Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman, warned her in the Daily Telegraph that “if the government decides in the face of EU belligerence to cut and run and leave part of the UK languishing in the stifling embrace of the EU, then that would be totally unacceptable to us and many others in the House of Commons”.
This threat brought anger from some quarters of the Conservatives, with proRemain MP Heidi Allen reminding Mr Wilson that the DUP had been bought off with £1 billion (Dh4.83bn) of public spending to achieve the deal between the parties.
Mrs May will have to decide whether she should call the DUP’s bluff and force through a backstop deal.
The calculation in No 10 is that the Northern Irish party won’t be able to stomach the concept of a government that has Mr Corbyn as its leader, because of the Labour leader’s long-standing links with Irish republicans.
But the DUP could find the prospect of being split from Britain, from the very “union” enshrined in their name, too much to accept and vote down Mrs May.
If she thinks she has seen a change in fortunes over the past week, the coming one could prove the most charged of her 27 months in Downing Street – and perhaps her last.
The British prime minister faces a brewing challenge from unhappy Leave forces within her Conservative Party