Theresa May has survived some brutal moments in two years in Downing Street, but none of those will compare to the ordeal a faction of her own Brexiteer Conservative MPs are planning to put her through.
Hardline Tory Eurosceptics arrived back in Westminster this week feeling upbeat and focused after a summer plotting a final assault on the Brexit policy May announced at Chequers, her official country residence, on July 6.
Members of the European Research Group — the hard-Brexit caucus whose senior figures include Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, and the former Brexit minister Steve Baker — think they’ve got one last shot at killing off the Chequers plan and replacing May with a prime minister who will, in their eyes, deliver a true Brexit. Most want that to be Boris Johnson.
Emboldened by the uprising against Chequers among the Tory grassroots — and by opinion polls suggesting the wider public are also against it — ERG members told BuzzFeed News they’ve lined up more than the 48 MPs required to trigger a vote of no confidence in their leader and will move against her soon, unless she does a radical about-turn.
The only question, they say, is whether they’ll strike in the next few weeks, or wait until next month, after the Tories’ annual conference in Birmingham, when the EU may have demanded more concessions that would be unpopular with Tory members.
Even the Sun’s bombshell splash on Friday — which revealed that Johnson had split from his wife, Marina Wheeler, after she accused him of having a series of affairs — didn’t seem to dent the Brexiteers’ resolve. To have their putative champion once again mired in negative publicity about his private life was hardly helpful, and it raised new questions about his suitability to be prime minister, but the Eurosceptics insisted his marriage breakdown makes no difference to their plans.
“Nothing has changed,” one MP told BuzzFeed News on Friday.
In the Brexiteers’ view, Johnson’s personal baggage is already “priced in” to his reputation with Tory members, and the latest episode will make no difference to his chances of being leader. The rebellion is on, as far as they’re concerned, and he’s still the man to front it.
BuzzFeed News spoke to numerous MPs, advisers, and other Tory sources in recent weeks, who presented an ominous outlook for the prime minister.
October was meant to be the month that May would secure an agreement with the EU that ensured the steady, auspicious withdrawal voters were promised. But instead of entering the final stages with her party united behind her, May is approaching the moment of maximum danger in her premiership.
Chequers has been received with scepticism by Brussels and outright hostility by her own party. While aides in 10 Downing Street insist the proposal will be accepted, Brexiteers say they’re kidding themselves.
“They’re no more likely to accept Chequers than I am to vote for Jeremy Corbyn,” a Leave-supporting businessman said of the ERG.
Besieged and out of options, May’s hold on power has never seemed more precarious.
And yet, the sources said, the Brexiteers also have a weak hand. For all their bravado and ideological zeal, they’re running out of moves. And the clock is running down fast.
“Time is running out,” said a former senior figure in the Vote Leave campaign who is close to many senior Tory Brexiteers.
Renewed doubts about Johnson’s credentials are just one of several fundamental problems that could result in their bid to seize control of the Brexit process ending in a messy failure.
Their plan to publish an alternative to May’s Chequers deal before the party’s annual conference later this month is a mess, according to several people familiar with their thinking. And the ERG doesn’t have the backing of enough Tory MPs to defeat May in a vote of no confidence when they call it.
Senior figures in the ERG estimate they can get only 100 votes — well short of the 159 required — in a leadership challenge, insiders said. They are dependent on events changing the arithmetic, such as May agreeing to more unpopular concessions to the EU, or a badly handled domestic crisis that convinces enough Tory MPs that a change of leader is required sooner rather than later.
They can’t even count on all the Leave-supporting Tories. Prominent Brexiteers such as environment secretary Michael Gove, Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, and international secretary Penny Mordaunt, who would add a lot of weight to their push for an alternative course, have stayed loyal to the prime minister and backed Chequers.
Some senior Eurosceptics fear that the longer they wait, the more time it gives Downing Street to convince moderate Tory MPs that Chequers is the only game in town — that voting against it would result in the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal or Brexit not happening at all.
Unless the Brexiteers seize back control of the process soon, a former Vote Leave source added, May could strike an agreement with the EU that fudges the issue of the Irish border — the main sticking point in the negotiations — and puts the UK on course for a future relationship with the union that, in the Brexiteers’ view, will be “fucked”.
Ardent Brexiteers insist they’ve got no choice but to try to bring down May now. The future relationship she set out at Chequers, as they see it, would keep the UK far too closely aligned with the EU after leaving, and that would amount to a betrayal of the referendum that Leave voters would never forgive.
While these MPs publicly deny that their campaign is about changing the leader, they privately say there’s no chance of May changing her mind and adopting a harder Brexit. Destroying the Chequers plan, in their view, will almost certainly require them to force a change of leader. And they want that to happen soon — within weeks.
“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly,” said one member of the ERG, quoting Macbeth.
Not all the critics of Chequers agree.
A group of Brexiteers around David Davis — who resigned as Brexit secretary in July because he disagreed so vehemently with May’s change of approach — are less gung ho about challenging the leader. They believe May can still be convinced to abandon Chequers for a harder Brexit and want to give her time to come around. They’re unconvinced that a leadership contest is helpful and not keen on Johnson taking over.
“Our job is to find a way for the PM to have space to climb down,” one Davis ally said.
Other Brexiteers say that’s just not realistic.
“I don’t see how you can get rid of Chequers without bringing her down,” one said.
A major problem, though, is whether the hard-Brexiteers’ preferred leader even has the appetite for a coup.
Johnson had lengthy discussions with senior figures in the ERG over the summer. The ERG leaders, while insisting they’re clear-eyed about his flaws, believe Johnson is the only Brexiteer who truly has a chance of beating May before the UK leaves the union in April. Some see him as a Churchill-like figure stepping forward to save his country at a moment of national crisis. Their hopes were raised on Monday, when Johnson appeared on the front page of the Daily Telegraph in what seemed to be a declaration of intent.
But even then, nobody was really sure whether Johnson wants to do it, even before the revelations about his marriage.
“Lots of people want Boris to run but no one can get a clear sense of whether he wants to do it,” said a former Vote Leave source. Other sources familiar with Johnson’s thinking said the same.
His intentions are even less certain after Friday. Johnson’s Tory supporters insisted his private life won’t be an issue: “People don’t care about stories about politicians’ personal lives any more, and with Boris it’s all factored in anyway,” said one MP. “If anything he’s probably relieved this was flushed out now before the leadership contest.”
Another person who is close to Johnson agreed that the scandal “won’t deter him at all”, and that he’ll probably still run — but admitted it is up in the air. Another source said Johnson is surrounded by different groups with often competing agendas, including the ERG, and it’s not always clear which has the most sway over him.
There are drawbacks to Johnson aside from his personal baggage. For one thing, many Tory moderates are adamantly opposed to him taking over as party leader. And some people around Johnson worry that he doesn’t have a plan of his own that would convince the party to choose him over May.
Everyone is waiting to see what Johnson does at the Conservatives’ annual conference in Birmingham later this month, where he is scheduled to speak at a fringe event. The concern among some Brexiteers is that Johnson strings them along by continuing to snipe at Chequers but never actually moves against the prime minister.
Even if they can nail down Johnson, the hard-Brexiteers will still struggle to get the numbers to remove May.
Under Conservative party rules, May’s leadership will be put to a vote if 48 or more MPs write to the backbench chair, Sir Graham Brady, expressing no confidence in her. According to ERG sources, the group had more than enough MPs to trigger a vote of no confidence in July, before parliament’s summer recess, but they held off because they knew they didn’t have enough to actually win the vote.
Removing the prime minister and forcing a new leadership run-off would require 159 MPs to vote no confidence. If May survives the vote, her critics wouldn’t be able to challenge her again for at least a year. So the ERG’s leaders decided to wait until the autumn, hoping that they could convince enough of their moderate colleagues by then that May’s approach was untenable.
To prepare, they spent the summer publicly making the case in the media against Chequers, while working secretly on an alternative policy. To stoke opposition in the grassroots, Rees-Mogg wrote to the chairs of Conservative associations around the country urging them to resist Chequers. And the group's leaders worked on Johnson.
It hasn’t totally gone to plan.
Baker wanted to refashion Change Britain, a campaign group which succeeded Vote Leave, into a vehicle to promote a Johnson run, but others involved with the group refused to become involved in a leadership challenge, insiders said.
And the alternative Brexit plan is far from ready, several sources told BuzzFeed News.
A committee of MPs, including Bernard Jenkin, Owen Paterson, and John Redwood, have been working on a policy platform based on a Canada-style free-trade arrangement, in the hope of convincing more moderate Tory colleagues that a hard Brexit is plausible. It was intended to be published next week, but has been the subject of an internal row.
Senior Brexiteers who have seen the paper said there are significant flaws with it. That is alarming, they said, because the document was meant to be at the stage when it would be signed-off for publication.
In Number 10, aides to the prime minister are said to be greatly amused that their most dangerous enemies can’t seem to get it together.
Even senior Leave-supporting figures acknowledge there are problems. “Brexiteer MPs are completely disorganised and not putting the work in,” one told BuzzFeed News, “but why break the habit of a lifetime? They are rats in a sack who all think they should be in charge.”
Alex Spence is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Spence at email@example.com.
Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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