Theresa May and her team in Number 10 are no strangers to political turbulence and firefighting. But by any measure the last three weeks have been amongst the most difficult since Theresa May entered Downing Street.
It was all looking so good
Although it seems a lifetime ago now, the marathon 12-hour Cabinet meeting at Chequers on 6 July produced what the Prime Minister described as a “collective position for the future of [the] negotiations with the EU”.
Despite all the talk of Ministerial walk-outs, WhatsApp tantrums and even David Cameron stepping in to placate Boris Johnson, it appeared Theresa May had managed to get her Cabinet to agree on a united approach to Britain’s future relationship with the EU. While the document continued to “fudge” certain issues and amounted to a “soft” Brexit, it seemed it was enough to satisfy the different Brexit factions within the Cabinet.
The wheels start to come off
As soon as the details of the Chequers agreement were published, leading Brexiteer Conservative MPs began to line up to express their disquiet and opposition to the plans including Jacob Rees-Mogg, standard bearer for the Brexiteers. Suspicions were raised further when neither David Davis nor Boris appeared over the weekend to endorse the plan.
Then late Sunday night, a little over 48 hours after the Chequers summit, David Davis and his junior minister Steve Baker announced they had resigned, stating they did not believe in the Chequers deal.
Number 10 now held its breath, waiting to see whether other Brexiteer Ministers would walk, with all eyes on the man opposite Number 10 in the Foreign Office.
The blond bombshell explodes
The PM and her team didn’t have to wait long. On Monday afternoon, Boris Johnson announced he too was resigning, claiming the Chequers compromise amounted to a “semi Brexit”. Although he said he was “sad” to be resigning he did manage to arrange for a photographer to be there as he signed his resignation letter.
As before when faced with trouble, Theresa May hunkered down and tried to carry on. Although, cheered when she entered the Commons chamber moments after Boris had announced his resignation, she drew laughs and jeers when she referred to the “robust exchange of views” going on within her Party. The same afternoon, replacements were found in the form of Dominic Raab for DxEU and Jeremy Hunt for the Foreign Office.
With neither Johnson nor Davis calling for Theresa May to go, Number 10 was hoping that things might calm down.
Enter the Donald
However, just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, enter Donald Trump. Having arrived in the UK, things started well with the President treated to a lavish banquet at Blenheim Palace.
However, that same evening the details of an interview given to The Sun emerged in which he praised Boris Johnson, said the Chequers deal would kill off a US-UK trade deal and complained Theresa May hadn’t taken his advice on how to handle Brexit talks.
The next day’s press conference at Chequers between the two was an awkward affair. Despite the President’s best attempts to back track on his earlier comments, Theresa May still had to endure Trump praising Boris Johnson as a potential future Prime Minister.
Over to Parliament
Despite all of this, Theresa May’s problems were not over as she started last week facing the prospect of defeat in Parliament and a possible Confidence vote.
The debate before the crucial vote on Tuesday was extraordinary. Deep divisions within the Conservative Party were on display in the chamber with “remain” MPs such as Anna Soubry viciously attacking fellow hard Brexit-supporting Conservative MPs and vice versa.
The Whips piled on the pressure, warning potential rebels a defeat for the Government could mean Corbyn in Downing Street. In the end the Government scraped through with a majority of just six.
What happens now
The last three weeks have demonstrated that Theresa May presides over a Conservative Party in a state of near civil war, with divisions deepening daily. However, as one senior Tory backbencher said recently, Theresa May is protected by having the “best Chief Whip ever… called Jeremy Corbyn”.
Certainly, the threat of a Corbyn Government is enough to scare many Conservatives into towing the line and May also benefits from the fact Brexiteers know there is no majority in Parliament for their vision of Brexit.
Therefore, not for the first time, Theresa May’s position is protected by the lack of a viable alternative.
Now that Parliament has risen, the Prime Minister and her team will be pleased to have survived the last few weeks and will be hoping things quieten down over the summer as they seek to turn around opinion over the Chequers proposals. Expect to see a succession of Cabinet Ministers hitting the airwaves over the summer, trying to show united support for the proposals.
While there is undoubtedly deep unhappiness in the Conservative Party, especially in local associations, the summer should be relatively quieter for Theresa May.
What will Autumn bring?
In many ways what happens in the Autumn depends on the EU and their attitude to the Chequers deal, which will become clearer over the coming weeks as discussions between both sides continue.
If Michel Barnier, as predicted, demands further compromises the pressure from Brexiteers on Theresa May and the Government to say no and threaten a ‘no deal’ scenario will grow.
While Theresa May could agree to give further ground, the anger this would unleash amongst the Brexiteers is likely to be impossible to contain, resulting in a leadership challenge.
There also remains further difficult votes on Brexit-related legislation and the prospect of the Conservative Party Conference, where all eyes will be on the pretenders to the leadership, in particular Boris Johnson.
Without doubt, the Autumn will test the Prime Minister’s survival skills to the limit. Long, hot days lie ahead.