By the time you read this, Theresa May could already be gone as Prime Minister.
The Sunday papers spread out before me form a tapestry of treachery, the headlines booming with news of a fresh coup against the PM.
A dozen or so Cabinet members are said to be involved in the plot, which will urge Mrs May to step aside for a caretaker premier, most likely Cabinet Office minister David Lidington.
It says a lot about the paucity of talent in the Tory Party that the only person they can think of as Mrs May’s successor is a man so anonymous he probably had to look himself up on Wikipedia when the story broke.
To accuse the government of having made a dog’s dinner of Brexit would be defamatory to the chefs at Pedigree Chum. Ministers promised a feast and have served up a solitary bowl of cold, lumpy porridge, unappetising to that half of the country that voted Leave and inedible to the other half that voted Remain. They have taken a constitutional crisis and turned it into a national bout of soul-sickness.
Britons are angrier, more frustrated, and more dejected than they have been in many years. They no longer have faith in any of their main institutions, except the monarchy, and, the way things are going, a fair chunk of the public would be more than happy for Her Majesty to step in and take the reins of power.
Much of this is Theresa May’s fault. From Day One, she has steamrollered when she should have engaged, browbeaten when she should have convinced, and imposed when she should have compromised. The hard Brexit she championed to shore up the Right of her party has seen her become hostage to them. They don’t like her deal, Remainers don’t like her deal, she probably doesn’t like her deal — but it is the only deal in town.
This is why any coup attempt against her is futile. The best we can hope for is an Article 50 extension and an eleventh-hour fudge that everyone agrees to because they want the whole wretched business to be over. No new Prime Minister is going to manage anything better, unless they cave on single market or customs union membership, in which case Brussels would be generous in its rewards. We will either get Mrs May’s Brexit, or an approximation of it, or we will get no Brexit at all.
There would be a delicious irony in the hardliners’ refusal to vote for Mrs May’s deal ending up in another Prime Minister who delivers only the softest, most timid Brexit. ‘Hell slap it into them,’ as my granny used to say of such people.
Brexiteers protest that they could have done a better job than the Remainer Mrs May. Perhaps they could but when the time came, they weren’t prepared and she was. She had planned, strategised and positioned for years to ready herself for the top job. They pulled off an improbable win in the referendum then wandered around drunk on their own triumph. Insurgents, they had won the war without realising you must win the peace too.
Despite her early rhetoric, Mrs May has turned out to be neither strong nor stable but removing her at this juncture would reek of weakness. It would incentivise mischief-making in Brussels and embolden the anti-Brexit forces at home.
Ordinary Tory members understand this with more clarity than most Cabinet ministers and senior backbenchers. They appreciate Mrs May’s efforts — while well aware of her faults — and they know you don’t take your captain off the pitch with five minutes’ extra time on the clock. Many would see the Prime Minister’s ouster as the fruit of unseemly Cabinet ambitions rather than a sincere desire to save Brexit.
If they insist on carrying out their conspiracy, David Lidington would be the wrong choice. He is a staunch Remainer who would lack legitimacy with Brexiteers and a pallid technocrat with little name recognition among the general public. The task would call for a Brexiteer of some intellectual stature and proven ministerial experience, someone who grasps and is equal to the problems that confront us. If there must be a plot and a new caretaker Prime Minister, Michael Gove is the obvious answer.
However, a more profitable course of action would be to extract from Mrs May a promise to resign once the UK has formally left the EU. At that point, her job will be done and it will be time for the Tories to embark on the three most pressing challenges facing the UK today: 1) Overseeing the transition to life outside the EU, 2) Restoring mainstream national leadership from the political centre-ground, and 3) Preventing Jeremy Corbyn from becoming Prime Minister.
Determining the man or woman who possesses the necessary qualities will require a thorough leadership contest, not a dastardly enterprise involving the chief whip with a dagger in the drawing room. Tory members (and voters) have to be confident that whomever replaces Mrs May is capable of capitalising on the opportunities — and sidestepping the pitfalls — of Brexit. All candidates must be tested for their ability to speak to more than just their fellow Tories; they must be able to unite the country, Leavers and Remainers, around an inspiring platform of prosperity and optimism.
Above all, the next Conservative leader must be prepared for the moral confrontation against a Labour Party which has been overrun by antisemites and other extremists. Scandalous though it may be to say, Brexit, while a matter of national import, is ultimately about reordering our trading arrangements and tinkering with borders and customs policies. It is not about our fundamental character as a nation.
Jeremy Corbyn is a proposition of a different order. He is about who we are and whether we are the sort of country where a man like him can come to power. He has consistently sided with Britain’s enemies and antagonised our Jewish community. He is unfit to ride his bicycle past Downing Street, let alone park it there. The fight for Britain’s place in the world belongs to Mrs May but the battle for our soul will belong to her successor.
Anna Soubry was away over the weekend. The Broxtowe MP hadn’t got a last-minute deal on somewhere nice in France; she had been told not to go home for her own safety.
Paul Masterton had a panic button fitted at his house on the advice of Parliament’s security team. Masterton is implausibly young, slightly geeky, unfailingly affable — Kevin the Teenager’s more genial brother. Why would he need an alarm, especially in the tennis-and-tapas suburbs of East Renfrewshire?
Both MPs have been outspoken on Brexit, which thuggish louts think makes them fair game for abuse. Since the assassination of Jo Cox in June 2016, there have been 16 convictions for intimidation or harassment of MPs and a further seven cases are before the courts.
We could all do with tempering our language in these fractious times but social media companies really must step up. Many of the threats originate on there and if these platforms won’t take responsibility, they only invite sweeping regulation.
Nicola Sturgeon joined one million others on the streets of London on Saturday as part of a noisy but not terribly specific howl against Brexit. Her supporters back home might wonder why she never makes it along to pro-independence marches. It’s almost as if she knows which second referendum is more likely and which one is marching on the road to nowhere.