BIRMINGHAM, England—Even her own party can’t bear to watch Britain’s zombie prime minister and her cabinet of the undead. At the Conservatives’ annual conference, official speeches are being delivered to a half-empty hall while on the sidelines activists and politicians are threatening to tear the Conservatives asunder.
The party is no longer listening to its leader. Instead, hard-line Brexit advocates led by Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are preaching to huge crowds in a bid to force Prime Minister Theresa May to listen to them.
There are only a few weeks before British and European officials meet for an emergency Brexit summit. Despite their increasingly breathless entreaties the Brexiteers have so far failed to impede May’s slow, plodding steps toward a compromise deal that they regard as a sell-out and BRINO—Brexit In Name Only.
If the Brexiteers in parliament stick to their threats and join Labour to vote down May’s Brexit deal with the Europe, Britain will be plunged into a constitutional crisis. An impasse in parliament could lead to the government falling, a snap election, a second referendum or Britain crashing out of the E.U. without any kind of deal, which would likely send the economy into freefall.
Everyone can see the disaster looming, but no one has been able to halt May’s slow march toward chaos.
The first big hit of this year’s conference was a Brexit rally that had party members lining up in their hundreds to hear a cadre of critics lay into May’s plan, which was devised at the prime minister’s country house and has thus come to be named after the 16th century manor: Chequers.
They came with “Save Brexit” placards, “Chuck Chequers” pins and an insatiable desire to hear their leader derided in ever more colorful ways.
Ross Thomson, a young Conservative member of parliament (MP) from Aberdeen in Scotland, electrified the crowd by openly mocking the entire theme of this year’s conference. “I couldn't quite believe it arriving to conference here in Birmingham to see emblazoned on the front of the building, the word ‘Opportunity,’” he said. “I just couldn't help therefore think of all the other words that should be in there like ‘Missed,’ ‘Lost,’ ‘Wasted’ and ‘Squandered.’”
Thomson’s warm-up act was both savage and well-appreciated in the hall, but the crowd were really here for Rees-Mogg, the leader of the ERG group, which represents the hard Brexit wing of the Conservative Party.
Rees-Mogg—whose sixth child, called Sixtus, is famously being raised by the same nanny who looked after him as baby—is a cult hero in the party. His upper-class accent and love of double-breasted blazers and traditional conservative values spawned the nickname “the Honourable Member for the 18th Century.” Critics say his vision of Britain also hails from a past century but he argues that withdrawing Britain fully from all of Europe’s rules, regulations and the customs union would allow the country to return to its rightful place in the world.
He says May’s Chequers plan, which is intended to retain close ties to the European market for British businesses—at the cost of losing control over regulations—must be abandoned and replaced with a comprehensive free trade deal similar to the one struck by Canada with the European Union. The former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is also pushing for what he called “Super Canada” or “Canada Plus.”
Borrowing the title of the Mary Poppins song, Rees-Mogg told conference he wanted “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Canada.”
“I'm not happy with Canada Plus Plus,” he said. “We want to be more positive about it and I can't be more positive than supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which as you will all know is a word developed by a nanny, and nannies are jolly good things.”
After the rally, Rees-Mogg told The Daily Beast that he was confident May would be paying close attention to the grassroots calls for a harder Brexit. “I think one of Theresa May's great qualities is that she at heart is a party activist, she was a councillor, she still goes out canvassing. She’s always been very attuned to the party activists, so I'd have thought yes, it's quite likely that she will realise the strength of their feeling,” he said.
Rees-Mogg said his position was “very close” to that of Johnson, who made his own pitch in a fiery speech that denounced May’s Chequers deal as an “outrage.”
Johnson could not address the official conference since he resigned as foreign secretary in July in protest at Chequers. Instead he delivered a rival speech which was scheduled at the same time as the Home Secretary Sajid Javid was due to lay out the most significant policy announcement of the week on post-Brexit immigration.
As Javid spoke to a hall that was embarrassingly full of empty seats, 1,500 party members formed a three-hour line to see Johnson that snaked through the Escher-like asymmetric corridors of the ICC complex in central Birmingham.
After being greeted with a standing ovation, Johnson explained that May’s proposed deal was “humiliating” for the country.
“The U.K. will be effectively paraded in manacles down the Rue de la Loi like Caractacus,” he said. “And it occurs to me that the authors of the Chequers proposal risk prosecution under the 14th century statute of praemunire, which says that no foreign court or government shall have jurisdiction in this country.”
May’s spinners briefed the press that she had not watched Johnson’s speech, but she confessed to the BBC that she had been following what he said. “There are one or two things that Boris said that I am cross about,” she conceded.
Several of her allies had already been dispatched to slap down Johnson in a rare case of “blue on blue” sanctioned from the top of the party, but it did not bring him into line ahead of a speech that sounded very much like the start of a leadership bid.
The party is in a rebellious mood although few Tories realistically believe there is time to oust May before Britain formally leaves the E.U. on March 29 next year. Once that has happened, however, Brexiteers are likely to try to stage a putsch in time for detailed negotiations on Britain’s future relationship with the E.U.
Rees-Mogg and Johnson are both among the favorites, although former Cabinet minister Nicky Morgan—one of the party moderates—believes hardline pro-Brexit critics will not prevail. “That extreme wing of the party is not represented in Cabinet and I'm pretty sure that the next leader of the party will come from the current Cabinet,” she told The Daily Beast.
Under Conservative leadership rules, the MPs whittle down the candidates to a final two who proceed to a vote among the party members. Johnson and Rees-Mogg have both bolstered their reputations as darlings of the grassroots this week, but they have simultaneously further damaged their cause among the mainstream MPs. “I don't think either of them would get through the parliamentary party hurdle,” she said.
The chasm between the party’s rebellious grassroots and the senior politicians was on show all over conference. At one fringe event, Brexiteers shouted down MPs Antoinette Sandbach and Vicky Ford who were involved in testy exchanges with Sir Bernard Jenkin, a member of Rees-Mogg’s ERG.
Ford rebuked Jenkin’s “unacceptable language” after he made an unflinching promise to vote down May’s Chequers deal no matter what that meant for the future of the Conservative government. “I always tell my kids please don't have your fights in public and please have respect for each other,” she said.
Jenkin told The Daily Beast afterwards that his colleagues would indeed go ahead and vote down May’s deal, but he pointed out that bringing down the government would be down to the moderate Conservatives. If the Chequers deal is voted down, Britain would default to a no-deal Brexit, which most people outside the ERG think would be disastrous. The only way May’s government can fall is if she responds by calling an election or suffers a vote of no-confidence in the House of Commons, which would probably only happen if the moderates voted her out of No. 10.
“He's saying he has the balls to vote against Chequers—so he'll cause the crisis not me,” Sandbach told The Daily Beast, but she refused to be drawn on what she would do once the crisis hits.
With internal Conservative Party politics set to determine the outcome of Britain’s negotiated exit from Europe, there are moves to try and intensify the party membership’s Euroscepticism even further.
In an imposing red-brick Victorian building outside the official conference complex, a group of hard-line Brexiteers met to discuss a takeover of the party.
Stephen Woolfe, who was elected as a Member of the European Parliament on the U.K. Independence Party ticket, has been leading a campaign to get UKIP members to join the Conservative Party and thus move the party further to the right.
His own application to join the Conservatives was rejected, but he says 7,000 people have clicked through his Blue Wave site to join up. That number sounds small but the campaign estimates that there were only around 52,000 active Conservative Party members, which would give these former UKIP activists a powerful voice in voting for the next party leader and in selecting more Eurosceptic local MPs.
“This is where their big fear is,” Woolfe told The Daily Beast. “And that's why they don't want me—we're more than 10 percent of the active membership now. If you get 20 percent of the active membership then whoever wants to be leader is going to have to come and talk to us.”
Conservative Brexiteers at the event hosted by the Thatcherite Eurosceptic Bruges Group welcomed an influx from UKIP even though others describe it as infiltration. Bill Cash, a Conservative MP and one of the grandfathers of Britain’s anti-EU movement, said he has “a lot of time” for Woolfe.
“I actually feel very strongly that everybody goes through transitions. Theresa May herself has gone from Remain to Brexit, so if she can go through that sort of transformation I will welcome people who have done the same,” he told The Daily Beast.
Another of the staunchest Conservative Brexiteers, Andrea Jenkyns said it was crucial not to “turn our backs on our friends who left us, went to UKIP and want to come back again.”
She hopes that the party membership will soon elect a Brexiteer prime minister to replace Theresa May. “If the next prime minister is before the Brexit period then most definitely,” she told The Daily Beast.
Morgan, Conservative chair of the Treasury Select Committee, dismissed the influence of this faction.
“The difficulty at these conferences sometimes is that the fringe meetings with the loudest voices that don't represent the strongest Conservative tradition come across as being perhaps representative and they're not,” she said. “The Bruges group is not mainstream Conservative parliamentary opinion, or mainstream party opinion.”
If hard-line Brexiteers continue to join the party to register their displeasure with May’s Brussels compromise then mainstream party opinion will be changing a lot more quickly than Morgan would like.