As they paced the dark, wood-paneled corridors deep in the heart of the British Parliament, Theresa May’s government enforcers were getting desperate.
It looked as if the prime minister had finally run out of road. After 10 days in which her Brexit plans had been savaged by critics on all sides, a new rebellion was brewing. There were more than enough pro-European Conservatives threatening to destroy her blueprint for leaving the EU to challenge her authority. May’s government whips decided to play hardball.
In the end, they won — by the skin of their teeth — and May was saved from what would have been a catastrophic defeat. But in the bitter aftermath, as her opponents licked their wounds, it appeared that the premier had paid a heavy price as trust and goodwill bled away from her government.
Wednesday promised more drama with May facing an intense day in Parliament from prime minister’s questions at noon to appearing before a panel of lawmakers and then meeting her own backbenchers. As if that wasn’t enough, rival Boris Johnson could signal whether he intends to challenge her when he gives a “resignation speech” in the House of Commons — he stepped down last week as foreign secretary in protest at her Brexit plan.
The danger for May is that if this trust between rival parties’ whips breaks down, every important vote becomes brutal. “It’s very, very bad,” said Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “This is the sort of thing which, as when it happened in the 1970s, leads to the complete collapse of relations between the parties. Short-term gain, in exchange for long-term pain.”
The stakes in Tuesday’s crucial votes on the Trade Bill could not have been much higher. With just three months to go before a self-imposed deadline to agree the terms of Brexit, talks have stalled in Brussels because May’s team hasn’t been able to agree what it wants.
For more than a year, May has made it a central plank of her Brexit plan to take the UK out of the EU customs union to strike trade deals with other nations around the world.
But she’s facing opposition from pro-EU Tories who want to keep close ties to the bloc. After months of arguments, the debate came to a crunch on Tuesday. Rebel Tories including Stephen Hammond put forward an amendment to May’s Trade Bill that would keep open the fall-back option for UK to stay in a customs union with the EU.
Hammond, a cheerful 56-year-old former minister, had won the backing of 11 other pro-EU Conservatives for his plan. Crucially, the main opposition Labour Party, along with other smaller groups, also lined up against May, who does not have an automatic majority in Parliament. They had more than enough votes to win.
If the customs union amendment won, there would be a guaranteed backlash from pro-Brexit Tories who would try to topple PM as party leader, rebels were warned. Government whips and the pro-EU rebels were adding up their numbers.