It’s disgruntled Brexiteers who are first to stage a departure

It’s disgruntled Brexiteers who are first to stage a departure, by John O’Sullivan.

The week beginning Friday, July 6, was the most extraordinary and perhaps important week in British politics since 1940.

An “away day” cabinet meeting at Chequers kicked off a national debate, gripping both the political establishment and ordinary voters, on whether Britain would reassert itself as an independent, self-governing democracy or lapse back into being one of the larger members in a 28-nation EU dominated by Germany. …

Chequers — the meeting rather than the country home — was always going to be a milestone on the road to Brexit. …

A still more ominous curtain-raiser was a leak to the media from a Downing Street operative that if a cabinet minister resigned during the away day, he would immediately lose his official car and be compelled to walk the long walk of principle to the gate to pick up a taxi.

That didn’t seem the worst of threats; it’s a 15-minute stroll through pleasant countryside. But it did set the tone for one of the least agreeable country-house weekends in history — one apparently designed by someone with experience in East German psy-ops and hostage psychology management: isolate them in a remote location, cut off their escape, take away their phones, give them complex bureaucratic papers to read, cut short the time for reading, examine them, confuse them, mock any mistakes they make, demand they sign the document, threaten them with non-personhood and, if they refuse, tell them the decision has already been made by the party and their refusal would be meaningless. It was a brilliant technique — call it applied Stockholm syndrome — and it worked. Most of those present nodded smilingly and signed; some were reluctant, but they signed, too, in order not to spoil the occasion, and Boris even proposed a toast to Big Sister. Happy to be still in power, they all got into their cars and returned to London. …

So as the weekend began, cabinet was united behind the softest of Brexits. And the media coverage, now largely Remainer in sympathy, not only reflected this appa­rent victory but assumed its per­manence. …

In The Sunday Times, Tim Shipman delved into the backstory of this May triumph and found a scoop: the Brexiteers had been hit with an ambush planned as long ago as March. …

For a moment May shimmered in the unlikely role of a Bond villainess — one, alas, to whom the screenwriter has given no good lines. And this image of ruthlessness, giving Remainers a thrill of revenge on the Brexiteers for their intolerable referendum victory, lasted until late on Sunday when Davis resigned. And then the ambush didn’t seem quite so admirable. …

­Together Davis’s [resignation] letter and Shipman’s scoop established that ­responsibility for the dire state of Brexit’s progress belonged to May and the small cabal of civil servants and advisers around her. On Monday morning, Steve Baker, Davis’s deputy minister, who is popular with MPs, resigned as well and said the same things as Davis in a ­louder voice and more indignantly. Attempts to pin the blame for the Brexit mess on Brexiteers were decreasingly persuasive.

All this prompted a change of tone in the media coverage: the threats to take away the official cars of rebel ministers no longer seemed amusing but hubristic and nasty. And maybe not very effective either — all menace and no stilettos — ­because May’s triumph no longer seemed secure.

By Monday afternoon MPs were returning to Westminster with tales of fear and loathing from their constituencies. Lifelong Tory activists were tearing up their party membership cards; others were joining the UK Independence Party, which suddenly had a spring in its step; and the letters pages of The Daily Telegraph were filled with denunciations of May and her new, improved Brexit policy. …

Mid-afternoon on Monday, Boris resigned too. That was big news. … His resignation was the most important this week because Boris showed that he didn’t think the battle was lost. And if Boris is fighting it, the battle isn’t lost. …

It is a situation of extreme ­uncertainty and flux. The popularity of May and the Tory party has been plummeting. Labour has moved ahead of the Tories, 39 per cent to 37 per cent. Polls show that May is less admired than at any point of her leadership, and few people believe she could lead her party into another election.

Bear in mind that May campaigned against Brexit in the referendum.

hat-tip Stephen Neil