Mark Stuart: With six months to go, is the Brexit muddle now impossible to solve?

PITY poor Theresa May. As the clock ticks down to Brexit, now exactly six months away, the Prime Minister faces yet another tough week at the Conservative Party's annual conference which gathers in Birmingham this weekend.

Graeme Bandeira's cartoon on Brexit, the Ryder Cup and the Tories.
Graeme Bandeira's cartoon on Brexit, the Ryder Cup and the Tories.

It’s been a bad month for the Government, and for Theresa May personally, after her Chequers Plan was given a loud EU raspberry at Salzburg.

While she came out fighting the following day with her television statement broadcast live from 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister appears caught between two irreconcilable forces – the European Union’s desire not to budge one inch (or 2.5 centimetres as the Europeans would say) on the integrity of the single market and a large group of her own MPs and party members who find her Chequers plan too much to swallow.

It seems remarkable that the very same British political party which took us into Europe under the visionary leadership of Edward Heath on January 1, 1973, now finds itself riven by the issue.

Theresa May delivered a live statement from 10 Downing Street after being rebuffed by EU leaders at the Salzburg summit.

Indeed, every Tory leader since Heath has faced deep splits over further European integration.

Margaret Thatcher began as a pro-European, campaigning for the ‘Yes’ campaign in the EEC referendum of 1975. She signed away more sovereignty in the Single European Act of 1986 (which created the single market) than any other previous Prime Minister.

However, by her Bruges Speech of September 1988, she felt she could not go along with further political integration.

Sir John Major is another Tory leader whose premiership was torn apart by Europe.

Ultimately, it was the issue of Europe which brought down Mrs Thatcher and which now threatens to unseat Britain’s second female Prime Minister.

John Major also faced huge Conservative splits over Europe, battling against Tory rebels over the Maastricht Treaty.

Tensions flared at the 1992 Tory conference when Norman Tebbit, the former party chairman, led the Eurosceptic charge, making a poisonous speech against Major. So fired up was the Prime Minister that he sent Douglas Hurd, his then Foreign Secretary, ‘give ‘em hell’ notes, as Hurd urged the Tory party to reflect on the damage caused by previous splits over the Corn Laws and Free Trade, telling delegates to ‘give that madness a miss’.

Douglas Hurd, a former Foreign Secretary, believes the Tories can't deliver Brexit according to his biographer Mark Stuart.

The ensuing war over the Maastricht Treaty nearly caused the Tory party to bleed to death for over a year, but having lost the battle of Maastricht, the Conservative rebels vowed to win the long-term war.

Gradually, the whole party moved in a more Eurosceptic direction, as heavyweight Europhile Cabinet ministers like Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke were ignored and sidelined.

In the 1990s, instead of being split between pro and anti-Europeans, the Tories were divided over their shades of scepticism, between the supporters of William Hague’s ‘in Europe, not run by Europe’ approach and the those who felt Britain would be better off in leaving the European Union altogether.

Both Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard attempted to move away from Europe as an issue, while David Cameron urged his party to stop ‘banging on’ about it.

However, as Cameron discovered to his cost, nothing ever satisfies the Eurosceptics; they always come back wanting more. Their ideological opposition to Europe is so absolute that short of becoming an offshore Singapore, they will never be content.

Such a reality leaves Theresa May with only one option, which is to reach across the political divide to appeal to Labour MPs in order to nullify the hard core of Tory rebels who will vote against any deal she might be able to strike with the European Union.

The Chequers Plan is dead. The best Theresa May can hope for by the end of November is a basic withdrawal agreement over EU citizens, a deal on the money and a so-called ‘backstop’ deal over the Irish border issue.

Everything else, including matters of vitally important matters like trade, will have to be, in true EU-style, fudged. Britain will then enter into a phase of semi-permanent transition.

Oddly enough, such a state of affairs would please the Brexiteers in the Tory party and their friends in the Eurosceptic press because they are only ever happy when crying ‘betrayal’.

Lacking a clear plan of their own and unwilling to take any leadership over the issue, they can blame everything on poor Theresa.

If the Prime Minister cannot get even a basic withdrawal deal through Parliament, then she needs to threaten her MPs with a general election, as John Major did in 1993 in order to get the Maastricht Treaty through.

But such scenarios assume that the Prime Minister has any remaining authority. Six months before Brexit, some are sceptical whether she can last six weeks as speculation about her position, and the future leadership, remains rife.

The only reason she survives for now is because no-one else in the Conservative Party has the guts to take the blame for Brexit.

Remember, this was not a crisis of Theresa May’s making. She voted ‘Remain’, albeit reluctantly.

Like many women before her, she was forced to clean up the mess made by a group of mostly men who had no clear plan about what they wanted to achieve once the country voted ‘Leave’.

Driven by a strong sense of duty and trying to act in the national interest, the Prime Minister has battled on valiantly, sometimes coughing and spluttering (as with last year’s conference speech) along the way.

A now frail but still lucid Douglas Hurd confided to me recently: “Brexit is too difficult. It can’t be done.” He is right; it is the impossible Rubik’s Cube of British politics. Why should we all blame Theresa May if she is unable to solve it?

Mark Stuart is a political academic from York who has previously written political biographies of Douglas Hurd and John Smith.