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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 January 2019

Throwing Theresa May out of the Brexit cockpit will set Britain on course for a devastating crash landing

As Britain faces its most significant post-war moment, now is not the time for Conservative MPs to begin an internal power struggle

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May faces a vote of no confidence. AFP
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May faces a vote of no confidence. AFP

You might not trust your pilot. You might think she’s incapable of getting you where you want to go. But the moment when your stricken 747, engines ablaze and undercarriage jammed, is coming in for a crash landing on a strange, fogbound runway is probably not the ideal time to force her out of the cockpit.

The decision by Britain’s Conservative MPs to submit their leader, Prime Minister Theresa May, to a vote of no confidence on the eve of concluding the UK’s Brexit deal will do nothing to restore public confidence in the ability of the British government to deliver anything but a chaotic withdrawal from the EU.

If Mrs May loses her job in tonight’s ballot, the Conservative party will either anoint a successor who could take control before Parliament recesses in just over a week, or descend into a bitter and divisive power struggle that could drag on well into the new year.

The Cabinet is not short of sharp-toothed, ambitious predators, so the smart money is on the latter, in which case the tumult is only getting started.

Whoever takes the reins, they still face the intractable problem of satisfying all elements of their party and winning over a majority in the wider House of Commons to support any version of the Brexit deal they manage to cobble together.

As Mrs May has proved, this is an impossible task.

If she wins the vote, she is safe for another year – unless, of course, opposition parties and a small number of her own disgruntled troops find sufficient common ground to force a general election.

If that happens, at least half of the country’s voters will be willing the opposition Labour party to win, and then to pull the plug on Brexit altogether.

But in short, and as has been the case all along, what happens next in the great Brexit tragicomedy is anyone’s guess.

In her speech in response to the challenge to her leadership, packed with the tired, unconvincingly hollow rhetoric that has become her stock in trade, Mrs May presented the unedifying spectacle of a prime minister quite literally begging for her job.

She would, she said, contest the challenge “with everything I’ve got”, even though it must have been as clear to her as it was to her MPs and the rest of the country that everything she’s got hadn’t been enough to fend off a challenge in the first place.

She believed, she said, “in the Conservative vision for a better future”, and “a thriving economy, with nowhere and nobody left behind”.

Perhaps she’d been too busy over the past couple of years to read the ever-growing body of analysis, including the forecasts of her own government, that has predicted that everywhere, and everyone, will be worse off post-Brexit.

Mrs May was at least right when she said that a change of leadership at this point would create further uncertainty “when we can least afford it” and that a leadership election “would not change the fundamentals of the negotiation or the parliamentary arithmetic”.

But there was no point in appealing to logic or common sense at this stage of the game.

Mrs May earned the enmity of a significant proportion of her party when, having been handed the leadership unopposed in July 2016, she threw away the Conservative’s parliamentary majority by calling, and losing, an entirely unnecessary general election.

Ever since, confidence in her has ebbed.

True, it wasn’t her fault when the letters of the party slogan started to fall off the wall behind her as she gave her speech to the Conservative party conference in 2017.

She couldn’t really be blamed, either, for becoming trapped in her car on Tuesday as Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, waited patiently on the red carpet to tell her that no, there was nothing she could do to bail her out of her predicament back home.

But when even inanimate objects start working against you, the writing is on the wall (before it falls off, at least).

As for the electorate, come a general election, it won’t be forgotten that Mrs May’s predecessor David Cameron triggered Brexit as a cynical ploy to keep his party in power in the face of rising pressure from populist right-wing politicians seeking to blame foreigners for all Britain’s perceived woes.

Mr Cameron, having tossed the Brexit grenade into the room, quit to write his memoirs instead of sticking around to pick up the pieces, as most in his party and in the country believed he should have done.

Many believe that, instead of picking up Brexit and running with it, Mrs May should have had the courage of her Remainer beliefs and either declined the leadership on principle or stood to reverse the referendum result in a general election.

Quite how an election might play now for the Conservatives was illustrated today by the venomous social media response to a tweet from Mr Cameron, who had the lack of self-awareness to tweet that "we need no distractions from seeking the best outcome with our neighbours, friends and partners in the EU”. As one of thousands of angry ripostes put it: “So says the man who lit the fuse then ran like the wind”.

As Mrs May fights for her political future, comparisons are, inevitably, being made with the overthrow of previous Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, ousted from power in a coup 28 years ago.

But there is a vital difference between the events of 1990 and the power struggle now unfolding in Westminster. Unlike Mrs May, Mrs Thatcher was not leading the UK through perhaps its most significant period in post-war history.

However bumpy the post-Brexit touchdown for which Britons were braced could have been, the crash landing they now face promises to be far more calamitous.

Updated: December 12, 2018 07:23 PM

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