When Theresa May arrived back at Downing Street, she walked through that famous black door, down a corridor and into the bowels of the tardis that has been her home and office for the past three years.
Outside the Cabinet room, her political staff had gathered and instantly broke into loud applause. She made a short speech paying tribute to all their hard work in the trenches of the long Brexit conflict. For her, the war was nearly over. “It was typically kind of her,” one aide said.
Having just handed her own No.10 eviction notice to the Tory party in the House of Commons, the downbeat mood was a stark contrast to her arrival in the summer of 2016. Back then, she declared her premiership would focus on tackling “the burning injustices” of modern Britain and helping the “just about managing” classes.
In recent weeks, May has been just about managing to hang on as prime minister. On Wednesday night, she was forced to admit the game was up.
Over in Westminster nearly two hours earlier, the PM had arrived at the backbench 1922 committee armed with her departure timetable. In the packed corridor outside Committee Room 14, former leaders including Michael Howard mingled with former Cabinet colleagues like Kenneth Baker. Lord Dobbs, the author of the ‘House of Cards’ drama that set the tone for retro-Tory intrigue, confided: “They’re auditioning for my next series.”
SIGN UP FOR THE DAILY BRIEF FROM HUFFPOST INDIA
May arrived from her Commons office after a quick text message from whips guarding sentry on the door of the meeting. Accompanied by her chief of staff, parliamentary private secretary, political secretary and her female close protection officer, there was the obligatory but muted ‘banging of desks’ to welcome her.
Committee Room 14, a huge wood-panelled space, has unlucky history. Aptly enough, given the role the Northern Irish ‘backstop’ has played in May’s downfall, this was the exact spot that also saw the ousting of Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1890. Parnell had demanded of his MPs: “Who is the master of this party?” The answer came back: not you.
Her voice cracking at one point, May was heard in silence as she finally uttered the words her Brexiteer backbenchers had been waiting for. “I know there is a desire for a new approach – and new leadership – in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations – and I won’t stand in the way of that.”
The reaction was one of relief, both for her and her party. The very first response came from veteran backbencher Richard Bacon, a doughty eurosceptic who announced he would now back the PM’s deal. James Gray and Robert Courts said they too would now switch and dump their opposition. Backbencher Bob Seely asked May just how close she was to getting the DUP on board. She sidestepped the question.
When the meeting ended 30 minutes later, even the usually impeccably loyal Simon Hart couldn’t resist an unvarnished summary. “She was not in tears - and neither was the Chief Whip,” he said, a reference to the serial demands the whips had received from MPs urging May to make her exit plans clearer.
“There are 28 colleagues who wouldn’t have supported the deal without her saying what she said,” a former Cabinet minister said. “She has read the mood of the party, which is a surprise,” added backbencher Pauline Latham.
At that point, around 5.45pm, momentum seemed to be swinging towards May’s deal. Yet around an hour later, further down the same Commons corridor, there was a more mixed message from the Brexiteers’ European Research Group (ERG). In Committee Room 10, another big, dark room, ERG deputy chairman Steve Baker was much more emotional than his prime minister.
Underneath a huge painting, ‘Alfred Inciting The Saxons To Prevent Landing Of The Danes’, Baker said he was “consumed with a ferocious rage after that pantomime [the 1922 committee]”.
“What is liberty for, if not to govern ourselves? I could tear this place down and bulldoze it into the river. These fools and knaves and cowards are voting on things they don’t understand. I may yet resign the whip than be part of this.”
Amid a standing ovation, Baker was hugged by Jacob Rees-Mogg and others at the top table. “And we are not a hugging group,” one inside the room said.
Up to 30 of Baker’s colleagues were said to be also opposed to May’s deal. “There’s no way enough votes are coming out of that room to put the withdrawal agreement through,” one source said. However, other members of the ERG, like Tom Pursglove, did switch.
Outside, one ally of Boris Johnson ridiculed those criticising May for not giving a detailed departure date. “Expecting her to do that is a bit much on a human level. It’s an advanced case of paranoia.”
And it was Johnson himself who later made plain he would finally back the PM’s deal. In a farcical moment, he left the ERG meeting chased by a scrum of journalists, shouting at him his own description of May’s plans: “Are you voting for vassalage, Boris?” Answer came there none. At least until the early edition of the Daily Telegraph, which pays the former foreign secretary a small fortune, confirmed his U-turn.
A senior Tory said Johnson would rue his previous years of quotes undermining May. “This is toddler politics, where you paint yourself into a corner of the nursery.” The DUP, which had been told by Johnson at its conference last year that “no Conservative British government could or should sign up to such arrangements”, was deeply unimpressed.
However, Baker’s opposition underlined that a hard core of Brexiteers would never be bought off. And within another 90 minutes, the DUP delivered the real bad news for No.10, with their statement that they could not support May without “necessary changes” to the ‘backstop’, which will tie the UK indefinitely to some EU rules to keep the border with Ireland open.
On Sky News, DUP leader Arlene Foster was even more strident: “What we can’t agree to is something that threatens the union which has a strategic risk to the union. Because for us, in the Democratic Unionist Party, the union will always come first.” It seemed that May’s novel approach of ‘back me so then you can sack me’, as Labour’s Angela Eagle put it, was failing its biggest test.
Just as ministers were absorbing the DUP’s intransigence, the results of the ‘indicative votes’ on Brexit alternatives were being counted, with Commons staff going through the laborious process of sifting green voting slips filled out by MPs. After an animated discussion behind the Speaker’s chair with Sir Oliver Letwin, John Bercow announced that none of the eight options had won a majority.
Some Tories jeered loudly at Letwin, while Julian Lewis said: “If I were an unofficial backbench prime minister, I would resign at this point.” James Gray, sitting 10 feet from Letwin, told him that the idea of a second run-off next Monday was a “ridiculous waste of time…crazy”.
But in an outcome that could strangely help May’s threat that her deal was the only way to stop losing Brexit, the two options of a customs union and a second referendum proved the most popular.
Both options had won more votes than May’s Brexit plans, and Ken Clarke’s customs union was just eight short of a majority. In just two days, parliament had done more to get a firm view from MPs than the PM had in two years.
The alternatives now need more Labour MPs and possibly Tory ministers to vote for them to have a hope of success. Either way, parliament is likely to vote for a longer extension to give itself more time, just as May gives herself less time in the job, with a final July exit mooted on Tory WhatsApp groups.
May has one final gamble, however, in the shape of a last-gasp vote on her EU divorce deal this Friday, the original date for Brexit Day. If that somehow passes, May’s self-sacrifice will have paid off and the UK would quit the EU by May 22.
“She’s a terrible tactician and an even worse strategist, but her approach of saying there is no alternative will have worked,” one MP said. “If she gets the deal through, who will remember in years to come all the stuff that went before?”
Some insiders believe she could try to get round Speaker Bercow’s demands by tabling the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, separating it from the future EU-UK relations talks. Those who have seen the bill say the reason it has not been published is precisely because its contents are toxic for the DUP, including in UK law the controversial ‘backstop’.
The other danger is that few Labour MPs are now likely to support May because they know that would directly lead to a new Tory PM, who is expected to be more hardline on Europe than their predecessor.
Calls for a general election are now growing in all parties. The Tories, who are famously better than Labour at regicide, may have solved one problem, only to create another.
One MP recalled with a bitter laugh May’s line to the 1922 Committee after her shattering 2017 snap election blunder. “I got us into this mess and I’ll get us out of it,” she had said at the time. The mess still looks messy, for both the Tory party and the country.