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As I See It

Tory show of unity will not conceal deep divisions

Brian Monteith portraitTheresa May faces what is bound to be raucous Tory party conference in Birmingham next week with hardline Brexiteers sharpening their knives in readiness for another attack on the Prime Minister’s Chequers plan. However, no one should expect a leadership challenge to be made against her. The Tories remain too polite to shout her down. 

In any case, being seen to attack a Tory Prime Minister humiliated by EU leaders is not a good look for Conservatives, so they will wait until the cameras are focused elsewhere before giving her an ultimatum to change policy – or have it changed for her.

For all the febrile talk of leadership challenges anyone who cares to read the speeches and articles of Boris Johnson will find that he is nothing but supportive of the Prime Minister carrying on. The same goes for Jacob Rees-Mogg. 

This is intentional. Like Winston Churchill before him, Johnson is widely unpopular in the Conservative parliamentary party and has zero chance of leadership while he is seen as a problem. Thus, Johnson wants to be regarded as a solution when necessary – cometh the hour, cometh the man – with the hour of need being the collapse in Brexit talks.

The party conference is not so much a political abattoir that some expect, more of a parade ring where the fattened politicians show off their best look to win over admirers. Johnson and Rees-Mogg will be conference darlings speaking from the fringe meetings, while others such as Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid will try to appear as leaders-in-waiting from the platform. Mrs May will be pleased just to get through her speech without a cough, though we can expect much to be made of last year’s spluttering debacle. 

In a perverse way, the personal embarrassment of losing her voice in front of a watching nation during the most important speech of her life won sympathy that kept her opponents at bay. The failure of her general election gamble months earlier, which was supposed to bolster her position in the Commons, might have justified moves to remove her immediately after the conference. 

While the Tory leadership hopefuls jostle for position, the policy focus over the next few days cannot be anything other than Brexit and the Chequers plan in particular. Make no mistake, it is despised across the party, with both Leavers and Remainers openly criticising it – suggesting an alternative will be found by the next Cabinet meeting on 9 October.  

This is evidenced by polling in 44 top Tory marginals that showed those seats could be lost because of Chequers. Worse, the Chequers plan came fourth equal in a range of  Brexit options behind a Canada-style free trade deal (22%), No Deal (19%), Remain (16%), with Chequers and a Norway-style deal both polling (11%). 

The Tories gather just days after Jeremy Corbyn met EU negotiator Michel Barnier, a canny attempt by the Labour leader to present himself as the real inheritor to the Downing Street keys, while colluding to ensure that No Deal remains a possibility along with a General Election, all of which suits Barnier’s agenda.

At his own party conference Mr Corbyn sowed the seeds of confusion over the EU and the ‘people’s vote’ but it is all too clear that he will do whatever he thinks is most likely to get him into power; he can then betray his supporters later.

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard may have ruled out a second referendum on Scottish independence, but believe me, if Mr Corbyn needs SNP MPs’ votes to get into Downing Street a way will be found to throw that promise on a bonfire. Likewise, if he becomes Prime Minister the last thing he will want is another EU referendum that might go against him – so both positions could be reversed. 

The People’s Vote is a misnomer, it is a losers’ vote. We have had a vote of the people, and another referendum would only invite a campaign for a further vote if the Leavers lost again.  The EU and Scottish referendums have divided the people and another would widen the gulf further. Far better we get to the other side of Brexit and begin to heal society – just as it will be far better for the Tories to get past their conference and try to heal their divisions too.

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