LEADING THE WAY OUT OF THE EU

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Friday 24 May 2019

At just past 10am this morning, Theresa May resigned as prime minister following a complete collapse in support for her last desperate pitch to get the Withdrawal Agreement approved in the Commons. Reports of fervour around the Brexit Party at polling stations up and down the country yesterday would have sent a clear message to the beleaguered prime minister, the game is up. Finally, she’s packing her bags.

May will formally resign as leader of the Conservative Party on Friday 7 June, two weeks from now. The race to replace her will begin the following Monday. The delay is due to the disruption caused by next week’s recess, followed by the 75th anniversary celebrations of the D-Day landings, combined with President Trump’s state visit.

According to Robert Peston, Downing Street doesn’t want the trip “undermined by the unseemly spectacle of Tory MPs and ministers scrabbling and scrambling to replace her.” More likely, they don’t want the Donald getting involved. This fussy attitude encapsulates May’s complete inadequacy. Did it not occur to the prime minister that Tory MPs and members might want to know who the US President thinks he can do business with?

May’s address on the steps of Number 10 this morning followed a meeting with the chairman of the 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady, who was expected to make a change to the Conservative Parliamentary Party’s rules to accelerate the leader’s departure. The decision to step down was essentially made for her.

“There are very few people now who know exactly what she’s thinking but she fully understands the position she’s in,” a senior insider told the Mirror yesterday before it was confirmed May would soon step down.

True on both accounts. May lost the plot, but not entirely. Her determination to get the deal over the line beggars belief, such is its deficiency, yet until the beginning of this week, she was poised to launch a fourth attempt. Madness.

At the same time, the prime minister has always understood the unlikely strength, and now weakness of her position. She is often praised for being a dogged survivor, but the Tory leader has only clung on because Conservative MPs by and large have wanted her to, otherwise she would have lost the confidence vote in December, which came after publication of the dreadful deal.

Tory MPs, particularly leadership contenders have wanted her to take the bullet over EU withdrawal, now the delusion has been banished, she needs to stand aside. Otherwise, Britain will be consigned to Article 50 purgatory, one extension after another.

The hope for most Tory MPs was to get a deal – any deal – with Brussels signed off so that May’s successor could get on with negotiating the future trade deal and not destroy their career the way May has with disasters like the horrendous £39bn pay-out and the backstop.

All of the contenders for the role of party leader will be annoyed at the prospect of having to deal with this mess, very few of them (if any) will be comfortable with No Deal, which is deeply unfortunate.

However, they also recognise that May can’t do the job, the longer she stayed in office, the worse this already disastrous state of affairs would become.

Jeremy Hunt “told her to pull the whole bill and that it was unfair to ask colleagues to vote for it. It was a waste of political capital,” a source close to the Foreign Secretary told the Times. Hunt is a useful barometer, a Remainer who has unconvincingly adopted the pose of a Brexiteer. He would have been thrilled for May to finish off this withdrawal deal fiasco. Now that she’s causing exponential levels of harm, even he recognised she had to go.

The fact that Hunt is a serious contender – behind Boris mercifully – is cause for concern in itself. May is leaving, but the odds of a sovereign withdrawal from the European Union have not shortened.

If reports from the Times are to be believed, the situation isn’t so black and white. The leadership election will take up most of June and July, May will remain in Number 10 throughout that period. She will allegedly use that time to get the “least controversial elements” over the deal through the Commons, making life easier for her successor. These efforts will not alter the situation however.

“Parliament needs something to do until the end of July and it would be helpful to whichever leader is elected to have some of the legislation in place given the October 31 deadline,” says a source close to the Brexit secretary, Steven Barclay.

May will make a mess of Brexit right up until the very end, but at least the end is nigh.