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5 Feb, 2018 09:14

Tory infighting, plots & bungled EU talks: The signs Theresa May is about to fall

Tory infighting, plots & bungled EU talks: The signs Theresa May is about to fall

A Tory civil war is tearing a hole in Theresa May’s “strong and stable” facade. As questions mount over her ability to lead and Brexit talks come to the crunch, it’s uncertain whether the embattled PM will survive the crossfire.

May is facing attacks from all sides of the Conservative party, with Brexiteers insisting she is not being tough on the EU and Remainers warning the government is letting the country down. Calls for her to stand down continue, with eurosceptics threatening to submit a “tsunami” of letters demanding a vote of no confidence.

May is resuming work in London on Monday after a week in China in which chaos - at times bordering on farce - has enveloped her Brexit policy. May has defied the odds to survive a disastrous election result and difficult Brexit negotiations by papering over differences in her party, but there is growing sense May’s leadership has become untenable as her party’s divisions spill out.

A “dream team” of three top Tory MPs — Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg — are poised to replace May, according to the Sunday Times. It reports eurosceptics contacted Johnson, the foreign secretary, on Friday and urged him to agree a pact that would see Gove, the environment secretary, become his deputy prime minister and Rees-Mogg — the shop steward of the backbench Brexiteers — appointed chancellor if the PM is forced out.

While encouraging MPs to “rally round” May, Johnson also told one of the plotters that he would be “ready” for a future contest. He vowed that the “cavalry is coming” to block the customs union plan when May’s Brexit “war cabinet” meets to discuss Britain’s future relations with Brussels this week.

It is understood Downing Street has placed about 10 ministers on “suicide watch” amid fears of a walkout that could cause the government to collapse, with defence minister Tobias Ellwood at the top of the list.

Meanwhile, May is preparing to meet the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Downing Street on Monday as crucial Brexit talks resume. By Friday, Barnier is expecting an “update” from the UK on what it wants the future relationship to look like.

May has so far been unwilling to show her Brexit hand. Despite almost a year of talks, she has not stamped her authority or a vision of Brexit on her divided cabinet.

She is now rapidly approaching the point where she will have to finally articulate what sort of relationship she wants with the EU. Once she does, more Tory infighting can be expected.

“To govern is to choose,” said Lord Bridges, former Brexit minister, urging May to get a grip as her cabinet holds two key meetings this week to discuss the Brexit “end state.” The cover of the Conservative-supporting Spectator magazine said simply: “Lead or go.”

While the country — and Brussels — wait for May to outline her ideas for Britain’s relationship with its biggest trading partner, the void has been filled by feuding cabinet ministers setting out vastly differing visions of the future.

In the absence of a clear lead from the top, Brexit has become a free-for-all.

Last month Boris Johnson let it be known that he wanted a notional “Brexit dividend” of £100m a week to be spent on the National Health Service, a demand even fellow Leavers refused to endorse. Philip Hammond, the chancellor, went to Davos to tell the global elite that Britain was seeking only “very modest” changes in its EU relationship.

Number 10 said neither the foreign secretary nor the chancellor had been speaking for the government on Brexit. This raised a simple question in Brussels: then who is?

An 11-strong Brexit “war cabinet” will meet with MPs this week to try to iron out Brexit differences. Whether it is possible to square that circle remains to be seen.

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