Andrew Vine: Summer break will only be a brief truce in Tories’ Brexit war

Parliament's summer recess will only bring Theresa May temporary respite, warns Andrew Vine.
Parliament's summer recess will only bring Theresa May temporary respite, warns Andrew Vine.
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AN overwhelming sense of relief is likely to wash over Theresa May and her close circle today as Parliament breaks up for the long summer recess.

After having survived – somehow – the past few fraught weeks in which the Prime Minister has been battered by Brexit, the respite of a few weeks in which the pressure-cooker atmosphere might ease cannot come too soon.

How desperately Mrs May wanted end-of-term to arrive in order to defuse the tensions within the Conservative Party was demonstrated by the abortive attempt to bring the summer recess forward in an attempt to break up plotters and cabals by getting MPs out of Westminster and back to their constituencies.

The prospect of a walking holiday with her husband, Philip, beckons and Mrs May is plainly in need of it. The strain of recent weeks is noticeably etched on her face.

She will need to recharge her batteries as much as she can. But she shouldn’t kid herself that it is anything other than a short interlude in the Tory civil war over Brexit.

For if Mrs May returns invigorated for a fresh round of fighting, so will her foes. The recess amounts to nothing more than a temporary truce over the summer, and not an end to hostilities.

Yesterday provided another respite of sorts, with the Cabinet away-day to Newcastle at least getting her away from Westminster, even if for the rest of us who live and work in the North it was nothing more than tokenism, a tip of the hat to the world outside London which did nothing to address the lack of Government investment.

Mrs May is going to have to spend a lot more time outside London when she gets back from holiday, making the rounds of Conservative associations to shore up her own support and try to heal divisions in the party.

It is doubtful if she will be successful on either count. Positions over a hard or soft Brexit have become too entrenched for that, and the lack of trust between the two sides makes compromise especially difficult.

But there is another factor that might well cause Mrs May disquiet as she heads on holiday. It is that the faction of Conservative MPs pushing for a hard Brexit know they have her on the run.

Just as a school bully latches on to a victim perceived as weak and then targets them relentlessly unless challenged, so Jacob Rees-Mogg and his followers have exploited Mrs May’s vulnerability to subject her to endless pressure in pursuit of their preferred outcome for how Britain leaves the EU.

And she has failed in her attempts to punch them back. Her attempt to impose a deal on Cabinet at Chequers failed within days with the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson, and a series of knife-edge votes in the Commons has only emboldened them.

A few weeks’ break is not going to change that. Autumn not only holds out the prospect of more of the same, but the real possibility that the Tory right will tighten the thumbscrews even further.

When Parliament returns on September 4, there will be little more than six months to run before Britain is due to leave the EU. Every month that passes without a settled negotiating position being established places yet more pressure on Mrs May.

That is easily exploited. Running battles over everything proposed or put before the Commons undermines her authority yet further, and brings the risk of Britain crashing out without a deal ever closer, despite the warnings from business that such an outcome could be economically disastrous.

Then there is the question of how long Mrs May can survive in office. It has been an achievement of sorts for her to reach today without the 48 letters to the backbench 1922 Committee needed to trigger a leadership challenge being sent.

The irony for Mrs May is that a summer tour of constituencies could change that. If associations don’t like what they hear, or perceive her premiership to be fatally undermined, it may provide the impetus for a movement to replace her.

All this means Jeremy Corbyn and Labour can go into the summer break in the most cheerful of holiday moods. The Conservatives are doing their job for them, attacking each other more viciously and damagingly than any Opposition seeking to present itself as a Government-in-waiting could dare to hope for.

The opinion polls show Labour in the ascendancy, which is hardly surprising given the Government’s disarray, but even that allied to warnings that the consequence of Tory infighting will be eventual rejection by the electorate is doing nothing to calm it.

So Mrs May has much to ponder as MPs pack their bags and she readies her hillwalking kit. But she might also reflect that though the summer break seems long, it will be over all too quickly and a stormy autumn lies ahead.