Theresa May is today weighing up what one ally describes as ‘a menu of equally unpalatable options’ – any one of which could lead to the swift collapse of her stricken Government.
Her exhausted Downing Street operation is staring at an invidious choice if her deal is voted down again this week: either accept the likely bidding of MPs and keep the UK in a customs union – thus splitting her party down the middle – or turn her face against the Commons by calling a ‘kamikaze’ Election.
A further option – leaving the EU with No Deal – was heavily defeated when the Commons voted on it earlier this month.
Calls for the Prime Minister to trigger an Election immediately have been led by Mrs May’s Political Secretary Stephen Parkinson, who has argued that ‘events will lead to one anyway so we might as well be on the front foot’.
Opposition to a snap poll is being orchestrated by Chief Whip Julian Smith, who has said he is fighting it with ‘every sinew in his body’.
Theresa May is today weighing up what one ally describes as ‘a menu of equally unpalatable options’ – including triggering an election. Pictured: Mrs May on the steps of Downing Street on April 18, 2017 – the last time she called a General Election
Labour is also ready to table a vote of no-confidence this week in Mrs May’s Government if it senses that Tory arch-Brexiteers will vote to bring down the Prime Minister
Even those advisers who lean towards calling an Election cannot decide if Mrs May should lead the campaign, or whether a leadership contest should be compressed into a few days and decided only by MPs at Westminster.
The Cabinet is equally divided, with Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, Chancellor Philip Hammond, Justice Secretary David Gauke and Business Secretary Greg Clark all urging Mrs May to accept a customs union – with the implicit threat that they will resign if she does not.
But Cabinet Brexiteers, orchestrated by Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom, are implacably opposed and are likely to quit if Mrs May starts to negotiate membership of a customs union with the EU.
Ms Leadsom’s ‘pizza club’ – which she founded last year to discuss Brexit strategy over takeaways in her Commons room – agreed yesterday to block efforts to join a customs union.
A senior Government source said: ‘Theresa is trapped between aides and Ministers, all urging her with equal passion to do different things.’
The pressure has been ramped up by the letter sent by 170 Brexit-supporting Conservatives demanding the UK leaves the EU on April 12 ‘with or without a deal’, and asking for assurances that Mrs May will not commit the country to a long extension or participating in the European Parliament elections on May 23.
Last night, there were reports that the letter was organised by Ms Leadsom, and also signed by other Cabinet Ministers including Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove.
A source close to one of the letter’s signatories said last night: ‘The letter reaffirmed our commitment to the manifesto, and to the PM’s own determination to seek a short extension to Article 50 that avoids the EU elections.’
The Cabinet is equally divided, with Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, Chancellor Philip Hammond, Justice Secretary David Gauke and Business Secretary Greg Clark all urging Mrs May to accept a customs union. Pictured: Oliver Letwin, who organised indicative votes earlier this week
Will she really risk it? The four options
Option 1 – May calls Election this week
After her 2017 Election disaster that saw Jeremy Corbyn wipe out her majority, the PM would be incredibly wary about going to the country again. But she knows that without a change to the numbers, the House of Commons will remain deadlocked.
Option 2 – Confidence vote sparks Election
If disgruntled Tories side with Labour in a vote of no confidence and Jeremy Corbyn is unable to form a government within 14 days, the country will be plunged into an Election anyway. Given that it looks inevitable, No 10 is split on whether to jump first.
Option 3 – PM accepts customs fudge
If Parliament orders the UK to stay in the customs union, Mrs May could be forced to abandon a cherished ‘red line’. Accepting it would blow up her party as hundreds of Tory MPs loathe the idea, including six Cabinet Ministers.
Option 4 – Delay Brexit, change leader
If Mrs May’s deal is defeated a fourth time, her political capital will be utterly spent and she will face a chorus of calls to quit. Brexit could be delayed for a new leader to be chosen and the Tories will go to the country with a fresh face in charge.
The Chief Whip’s opposition to an Election – which is shared by No 10 Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell – increased after he was briefed about Mr Corbyn’s plans to hit Mrs May with a ‘decapitation strategy’ if an Election is called.
Tory whips say Labour has drawn up plans to target a string of the party’s biggest stars – including Boris Johnson, Ms Rudd and ex-leader Iain Duncan Smith – and will pour thousands of activists into Tory seats in London and the South that are ‘vulnerable’.
One senior Tory MP in the South-East was overheard admitting at Westminster last week that ‘we’ve all had it’ if an Election was called soon. Labour is also ready to table a vote of no-confidence this week in Mrs May’s Government if it senses that Tory arch-Brexiteers will vote to bring down the Prime Minister.
However, Labour’s battle plan was last night dismissed as ‘bravado’ by one of its own Shadow Ministers, who claimed the party was simply not ready to fight an Election.
And party insiders also warn that Labour could lose all seven of its Scottish seats, effectively destroying any hopes Mr Corbyn has of getting a Commons majority.
Mrs May’s Election threats have sent a shiver down the spine of many Tory MPs in the South-East defending thin or vulnerable majorities. Top of Mr Corbyn’s attack list is Ms Rudd’s Hastings and Rye seat, where she is defending a wafer-thin 346 majority over Labour. Her role as Work and Pensions Secretary makes her doubly vulnerable, say Corbyn strategists.
Mrs May is also considering delaying Brexit and stepping down, with Boris Johnson the favourite to replace her
But Labour boasts it can also claim the scalp of would-be party leader Mr Johnson in his Uxbridge seat in West London. He is defending a 5,034 majority but Labour’s vote locally has soared in recent years.
Also in the Labour firing line are former Education Secretary Justine Greening in Putney (majority just 1,554 over Labour) and Mr Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader. He is defending a majority of only 2,438 in Chingford and Woodford Green. One senior Labour MP said last night: ‘London is basically a Labour city and the enthusiasm for Corbyn is still running very high. All those top Tories are going to struggle to cling on if Mrs May does fire the Election starting gun any time soon.’
The party is also aiming to eject Labour defectors in the new Change UK independent group, including Chuka Umunna in Streatham, South London.
Some Labour figures scoffed at the ‘decapitation’ claims, with one warning any gains in the South would be ‘cancelled out’ by losses in the North. One said: ‘Now we’ve started openly backing a second referendum much more than before, we’re really losing Brexiteer votes in the North.
‘When and if the Election comes, it really will be a case of holding on to what we have rather than making gains.’ Labour has 245 seats against the Tories’ 314.
The Labour plans emerged as Mr Corbyn declared it was time for ‘the sensible people’ to take over talks with the EU – even though he sparked fury from many Brexit voters last week by ordering his MPs to vote down Mrs May’s deal.
Mr Corbyn also refused to say whether he would offer an option to remain in the EU during a second round of indicative votes in the Commons tomorrow.
Speaking in Newport, South Wales, ahead of this week’s by-election, he accused Mrs May of ‘bullying and threatening people’.