Apologetic Theresa May’s fate in hands of MPs
Prime minister’s power severely curbed as cabinet takes control of government policy
Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May: power in her cabinet has shifted since the election to those who favour a soft Brexit. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth
Theresa May’s contrite appearance before the 1922 committee on Monday has won her a reprieve but not a pardon following last week’s general election debacle. The prime minister acknowledged the collapse of her authority when she told the MPs that she would continue to serve “as long as you want me to”.
They are content to leave her in Downing Street for the moment, not least because they cannot face the prospect of an immediate leadership contest – or worse still, a second general election. But the prime minister’s power is severely circumscribed as her cabinet takes control of government policy.
Negotiations with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) over a confidence and supply agreement offer an opportunity to ditch some of the more unpopular proposals in the Conservative manifesto, including cuts to welfare for older people. The DUP campaigned for Brexit in last year’s referendum but the party favours a more flexible approach than May to issues such as the customs union, because of the impact on the Border.
Power in May’s cabinet has shifted since the election to those who favour a soft Brexit, led by chancellor Philip Hammond and business secretary Greg Clarke. Damian Green, appointed on Sunday as first secretary of state – deputy prime minister in all but name – is an ardent pro-European. And Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has made clear to the prime minister that her 13 MPs want a Brexit that prioritises the economy over issues such as immigration.
The prime minister’s official spokesman insisted on Monday that nothing has changed in the government’s approach to Brexit. But Brexit secretary David Davis suggested the start of negotiations in Brussels, scheduled for next Monday, could be delayed.
Such a delay would give the cabinet more time to agree a new approach to the negotiations which satisfies pragmatists such as Hammond and Clarke without triggering a revolt from Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
A new approach could involve a softening of May’s declaration that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) should have no further jurisdiction in Britain. This would unlock opportunities for agreements on everything from market access to co-operation on justice and home affairs.
Labour and the Conservatives agreed before the election that Brexit must mean leaving the single market, but last week’s result has emboldened those at Westminster who favour temporary membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) as a transitional arrangement after Britain leaves the EU.
The loss of the Conservative majority has changed the parliamentary arithmetic dramatically, so that the government can no longer have confidence that legislation associated with Brexit will be approved. Such legislation includes the so-called Great Repeal Bill, which transposes EU rules into British law, and Bills on immigration and the rights of EU citizens.
May’s problem is that while she cannot do anything without the approval of the pragmatists in her cabinet, neither can she afford to antagonise the Brexiteers on her backbenches. Because, as she told them on Monday evening, her fate is in their hands.