It was Saturday night in Worcester, and time for another Brexit broadside.
Paul Everitt-Clay, a 45-year-old project manager, opened Twitter for the umpteenth time that day and posted a picture of Theresa May campaigning to remain in the European Union. “She does not believe in Brexit,” Everitt-Clay declared to his 9,300 followers. He added a hashtag he’s been using a lot lately: “#MAYMUSTGO.”
Everitt-Clay – who describes himself as a gay father of two and calls himself "the original centrist dad" on Twitter – is one of the Conservatives’ most prolific and outspoken activists on social media. He’s been supporting the party avidly since he was a teenager, when he helped his parents deliver leaflets. Lately, though, his loyalty has been badly shaken.
He wants a hard Brexit. And he’s outraged by the watered-down Brexit strategy may presented at Chequers, her official country residence, in early July, seeing it as a betrayal of the prime minister’s promise that the UK will be fully out of the EU in March next year. In the month since, Everitt-Clay has turned his campaigning zeal on his own party, refusing to promote the official messages put out by Conservative campaign headquarters (CCHQ) and instead repeatedly attacking the government’s Brexit policy – and the prime minister herself.
“I’m just angered and furious,” Everitt-Clay told BuzzFeed News in an interview. “I’m furious that I’ve been put in a situation that I’ve got to attack the leader of a party that I’ve always believed in.”
Everitt-Clay believes the Conservatives now have no choice but to urgently replace May with a prime minister who’ll abandon Chequers and put the UK back on course for a full withdrawal. And he’s not alone.
According to private messages and correspondence shared with BuzzFeed News, and interviews with multiple party activists, May’s attempt to reconcile the Eurosceptics’ desire for a decisive split with Brussels’ dictates has turned a significant segment of the Conservative base – the army of loyal volunteers the Tories depends on to keep the blue flame alive around the country – strongly against her.
These conversations suggest May’s change of strategy has caused a rupture with the party’s Brexit-supporting grassroots so deep that she may never be able to regain their trust, let alone convince them by the autumn to rally behind her Chequers proposals. The prospect of May getting a withdrawal deal and continuing as leader now appear to be in grave jeopardy.
Far from subsiding now that Westminster is on its summer break, the hostility to May’s change of approach is growing, the activists say. Some believe her departure before March – Thexit, as some are calling it – is essential to salvage Brexit, and they’re turning to Boris Johnson as the alternative.
Support for the former foreign secretary, who resigned from cabinet last month in protest at Chequers, has surged in the last few weeks. Johnson now appears to have a solid base among Tory members which could propel him to the party leadership and 10 Downing Street.
To the activists, May is so tarnished she can’t recover. As they see it, they gave her their loyalty two years ago, even though she was a remainer, and stayed loyal when she blew the party’s majority last year because they believed she would deliver Brexit on the terms they wanted. Having trusted her, they believe she’s capitulated to Brussels and crushed their dreams of taking back control.
“The betrayal is just off the scale,” one said.
Another added: “She has lied to us and taken us for fools.”
Listen to the activists talk about their leader now and the contempt is startling. She’s weak, they say. Incompetent. Hopeless. “Worse than Gordon Brown.”
“It’s almost a case for most Brexiteers now of anyone but May,” Peter Thompson, a businessman and Conservative activist who is also prolific on Twitter, told BuzzFeed News.
May has survived numerous turbulent moments in the two years since Britain voted to leave the EU, even when the political odds seemed insurmountable. This time, too, she appeared to have narrowly escaped, clinging on until the end of the parliamentary term on 24 July despite the resignations of cabinet ministers Boris Johnson and David Davis and a loud backlash from Brexiteers on the Tory back benches.
But while the furore about Chequers has faded from the media, the activists say, rebellion is churning in constituencies around the country and will explode when Westminster returns from its summer break in September – just as the Brexit negotiations enter a final, crucial phase.
A determined core of Tory foot-soldiers, having turned on the party establishment, are planning to use the summer recess to pressure individual Tory MPs to abandon Chequers and support a vote of no confidence in May as prime minister, BuzzFeed News understands.
They’re anticipating a volcanic showdown between the party’s leadership and its membership at the Conservatives’ annual conference in Birmingham at the end of September, if not before. The event will be a “bloodbath”, one activist said.
The activists are working in a parallel to a group of Brexit-supporting MPs centred around Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group, who are plotting a concerted pushback against Chequers in the autumn – and possibly a leadership challenge. The activists are hoping to prepare the ground for the Brexiteers in parliament by putting pressure on their colleagues who might be tempted to stay loyal to the prime minister.
The activists admit they’re outgunned against 10 Downing Street and the Conservatives’ official party machine, but they make up for their lack of political clout with energy and clarity of purpose. They say their last hope of rescuing Brexit is to convince individual MPs in Leave-voting seats that their careers will be at risk if they support Chequers.
BuzzFeed News has seen a list circulated by activists of 37 Tory MPs with majorities of less than 5,000 votes in Leave-supporting constituencies, who they plan to target in the coming weeks. They include the solicitor-general Robert Buckland, Welsh secretary Alun Cairns, employment minister Alok Sharma, and the agriculture minister George Eustice.
Some MPs have already been confronted by angry members in their constituencies. Last week Anna Soubry, one of the most outspoken Tory Remainers, survived an attempt to remove her as the MP for the Broxtowe seat. This is just a taste of the hostility to come now that MPs have returned to their local areas for August. Many will be startled by the strength of the feeling, the activists said. “People will be getting in the pocket of their MPs at every opportunity,” Thompson said.
Downing Street insists that May is honouring her promises on Brexit.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson said: “The plan agreed at Chequers delivers on the referendum result, taking back control of our borders and laws, and ending the vast sums of money we send to the EU every year which we can instead spend on our priorities such as the NHS. Our plan does that while protecting jobs and keeping the country together.”
To May’s critics, such boilerplate statements only underline their conviction that she’s out of touch with the mood in her own party. In the Brexiteers’ view, May’s new plan will keep Britain so closely aligned to the EU that it will be scarcely worth leaving – “BRINO”, as they put it, or “Brexit in name only”.
May insists Britain will leave the EU’s single market and customs union, that free movement of European migrants will end, and that the UK will be able to strike its own far-ranging free trade agreements with the US, Australia and other non-EU countries. But the die-hard Eurosceptics say the Chequers plan has effectively gone back on all these promises.
“The red lines, they’ve been painted white,” Everitt-Clay said. “They’re not there anymore.”
“She must have a fucking deathwish,” another activist said.
The activists say the wider party membership agree with them. It is difficult to quantify this precisely, but close observers of grassroots Conservative politics say the activists are probably right. A snap survey by the website Conservative Home, taken two days after the 6 July meeting, found that 60% of Tory members questioned were opposed to Chequers. Surveys in specific constituencies since then indicate that the level of opposition in some areas may be even higher.
“It’s not an angry minority,” Thompson said. “It really is a vocal majority. I have come across a handful of Conservatives who don’t want to be seen to be disloyal and don’t object publicly to the Chequers plan, but it’s really quite rare. Almost everybody I have conversations with, from local councillors to local association chairmen, are furious, frankly.”
The activists say they’ve been taken for granted by their leaders. Downing Street and CCHQ appear not to have anticipated such an angry response. “They seem to have assumed that everybody would row in behind it,” Mark Wallace, executive editor of Conservative Home, told BuzzFeed News. “They belatedly realised that they had judged that wrong.”
To quell the backlash, senior figures including May, party chairman Brandon Lewis, Downing Street chief of staff Gavin Barwell and chief whip Julian Smith have been wooing regional party officials, hosting conference calls and a meeting in Downing Street for association chairs. May and Lewis have emailed party members urging them to support her. In the next several weeks, they’ll try to make the case that a pragmatic Chequers deal is better than no deal – and that opposing it would cause political chaos that brings Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour to power or Brexit never happening at all.
But the critics say the members aren’t going to fold. For one thing, they don’t buy the argument that challenging May would hasten a Corbyn government. They think it will hasten an electoral defeat. “CHEQUERSMEANSCORBYN” has been a widely-used hashtag.
The activists point to opinion polls conducted since the Chequers meeting which show the Conservatives now lagging several points behind Labour, having held a narrow lead in most polls for several months before the Chequers. They think Chequers is so electorally toxic that backing it will lead to a catastrophe at the ballot box. A soft Brexit, they fear, would be seen by many Leave voters as an unforgivable betrayal of the referendum result. Those voters would abandon the Conservatives for Ukip, or simply not vote at all, handing the next election to Labour.
May is the main target of the rank-and-file’s anger, but she’s not the only senior Conservative whose standing has diminished because of her Brexit compromise.
Michael Gove, the environment secretary, is one prominent Brexiteer who has been accused of selling out the referendum by backing May. Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons, has also angered many of the party faithful by pledging loyalty to the prime minister. The die-hards are baffled that Leadsom didn’t follow Johnson and Davis by resigning, having been the hard-Brexit leadership candidate in 2016.
There is also bitter disappointment that Dominic Raab accepted a promotion to Brexit secretary. The 44-year-old former City lawyer had been seen by some as a future leader. They had hoped he would resign his position as housing minister to join the backbench rebellion against May; instead, he replaced Davis and became the public face of a Brexit policy he is widely thought to disagree with. “He’s just pissed away his chances of being leader,” one activist said.
And there’s dismay at the Conservatives’ deputy chairman James Cleverly. An exuberant, charismatic Brexiteer, Cleverly is widely liked by the party’s rank-and-file. So they were shocked when he publicly defended the Chequers plan.
Johnson has been the main beneficiary of the fallout.
Once adored by the party faithful, the former London mayor’s popularity had waned in recent years, as many came to question his competence and temperament. Now, he is again being widely talked about among the membership as a potential leader, the activists said.
For all his flaws as a politician, they say, Johnson has demonstrated his commitment to a hard Brexit and may be the only Leaver now with the stature to rally the country behind an alternative plan. In extraordinary circumstances, he’s their best hope.
“Buffoon or not, he is the only person who can save Brexit,” one activist said.