Now that the immediate threat to her leadership has receded, Theresa May has turned her focus on how to limit the Conservative rebellion against her Brexit deal when MPs vote on it next month. Jacob Rees-Mogg's bungled coup against the prime minister has left him and his allies in the European Research Group (ERG) looking incompetent and a little ridiculous.
Last week, Rees-Mogg stood outside parliament to announce that he had submitted a letter of no confidence in May, promising that the 48 needed to trigger a ballot would be submitted by Friday. Then the Brexiteers said MPs were consulting their constituency associations before submitting letters on Monday morning. But, by Tuesday, Rees-Mogg was telling reporters that the 48 letters might not come until after the Commons vote on the Brexit deal.
“Patience is a virtue, virtue is a grace. We will see what letters come in due time. Do 47 want to come with me or not? I may find that they don’t or they don’t do it today but when we get the meaningful vote. That’s a decision for them,” he said.
The DUP, which has established an informal alliance with the ERG to drive May from No 10, has launched the legislative equivalent of a guerrilla campaign against her government. On Monday night, the party's MPs abstained on Labour amendments to a finance Bill, in clear breach of their confidence-and-supply agreement with the Conservatives.
Instead of demanding the return of the more than £1 billion it paid for the DUP’s support for the current parliament, the Conservative Party is content to collude in the fiction that the confidence-and-supply agreement remains intact. Some close to the prime minister even believe the DUP can be persuaded to abstain in the vote on the Brexit deal rather than voting against it.
Meanwhile, May is hoping to pick off potential rebels before negotiations on the political declaration element of the Brexit deal conclude on Sunday. Nobody serious in London, Brussels or Dublin believes that technology can resolve the issue of the Border but the prime minister’s dangling of the prospect may win over some waverers.
The withdrawal agreement does allow for “alternative arrangements” but it is clear that any such arrangements must be mutually agreed by the EU and the UK. Downing Street is also fuelling speculation in London that Sunday’s summit in Brussels could turn into a long night of negotiations.
This idea of a late-night, marathon negotiating session is a fantasy the EU is determined to deny Britain and there is no appetite among the other member states for anything other than a brief meeting to sign off on the deal.