“At what point was it decided that Brexit means Remain?” she said, to gasps from her colleagues.
Oof! With friends like that, Theresa May has no need of enemies.
The comment lays bare the divisions in the Conservative Party and the almost impossible piloting act the Prime Minister must perform to steer the good ship Brexit safely into port.
If she tacks too far towards a soft Brexit – as she did with her Chequers White Paper – she infuriates the Brexiteers, who threaten to pull her down. If she tacks the other way – as she did when she accepted Brexiteer amendments to the Customs Bill – she faces angry opposition from her party’s fanatical pro-EU faction.
The high stakes nature of this political game was illustrated vividly in dramatic scenes on Tuesday evening this week when the pro-Brussels Conservative rebels came within a whisker of defeating the Government in the Commons. If that happened, the Chief Whip, and Skipton and Ripon MP, Julian Smith, apparently warned it would have triggered a no-confidence motion and a possible General Election within a month that Jeremy Corbyn would probably win. Still the Conservative Remainer rebels went ahead with their ambush. Kamikaze is not too strong a word for this reckless abandon.
Shorn of all politics, and regardless of whether you are a Brexiteer or a Remainer, one thing is clear here – Mrs May has quite remarkable reserves of courage and tenacity. Since her disastrous decision to call a General Election in 2017, she has been under intolerable pressure that I am convinced would have broken most people.
And this, let us never forget, is a 61-year-old woman with a serious disability – she has to inject herself four times a day to cope with type 1 diabetes.
I may not agree with her politically, and the flaws in her leadership are plain to see, but I cannot but admire her strength of character and complete devotion to duty.
Meanwhile, Brexit’s prince across the water, Boris Johnson, made a significant contribution to the debate this week in a Commons speech explaining his decision to quit the Cabinet over Mrs May’s Chequers blueprint. This was a speech without the buffoonery and showboating that normally characterises Mr Johnson’s interventions – and was all the better for it. Instead we got a thoughtful analysis as to why Johnson believes the Chequers plan will not lead to the bright Brexit we hoped for but would leave the UK in “miserable limbo” and “economic vassalage” to the EU.
Away from Westminster, something even more significant could be afoot. For several months a variety of different opinion polls have shown the Conservatives with a small but steady lead.
This is very unusual for a governing party eight years after coming to power. Those of us with long political memories can recall numerous instances when Opposition parties held double-digit opinion poll leads over the government of the day.
Given the Brexit turmoil, austerity and Mrs May’s sea of troubles, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour would normally expect to be streets ahead – but so far that has not happened. But this week we saw a small but possibly significant change with Labour opening up a four-point lead on the Conservatives – the party’s biggest lead since the General Election.
This happened not because Labour are surging – they remain on about 40 per cent – but because Conservative support is leaching away. And where are those erstwhile Conservative supporters going? Well, if you look at the detail of the polls you will see that Ukip has moved from three to eight per cent and are now almost level-pegging with the Lib Dems.
This is a party, let us not forget, that lost hundreds of council seats as recently as May, is virtually bankrupt and has got through six leaders since the referendum – but the Ukip corpse is definitely twitching!
This is the nightmare scenario for the Conservatives. The idea that the zombie party could rise again, build a narrative of Brexit betrayal, possibly under the leadership of Nigel Farage, and hoover up thousands of Europsceptic votes in marginal seats would be a disaster.
Perhaps it is not Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn or Anna Soubry that Mrs May has to worry about most of all – it is the voters.