Theresa May’s Balancing Act

Writing in Berlingske Business, Rasmussen Global Director of Media, James Holtum, argues that businesses seeking to understand the British government’s Brexit strategy should keep a close eye on a group of strategically-minded Conservative MPs. Danish businesses trying to understand Britain’s Brexit strategy should not overlook the role Conservative Members of Parliament play in setting the […]

Writing in Berlingske Business, Rasmussen Global Director of Media, James Holtum, argues that businesses seeking to understand the British government’s Brexit strategy should keep a close eye on a group of strategically-minded Conservative MPs.

Danish businesses trying to understand Britain’s Brexit strategy should not overlook the role Conservative Members of Parliament play in setting the Party’s agenda.

Prime Minister May walks a European tightrope suspended over a political gorge. At the bottom lie the political careers of Conservative Prime Ministers of the past thirty years. So it is unsurprising that David Cameron focused his gaze on his own feet, rather than at the horizon. Mrs May follows a similar approach, especially after the recent election.

Against this backdrop, a small but highly strategic group of MPs – proponents of Brexit for at least a decade – have exploited Number Ten’s short-termism – and preference for tactics over strategy – to gradually move the tightrope in a different direction.

The concessions to this group began even before Cameron became party leader in 2005. He won the leadership by promising to withdraw his MEPs from the centre-right and pro-integration EPP grouping, and rehouse them in a new grouping. The pledge swayed many MPs away from backing rival candidate Liam Fox.

The agreement to hold an EU referendum emerged from a clumsy comment by Cameron at one European Council press conference in June 2012. Asked about some Tory MPs’ call for an in/out vote, he criticised the ‘Stop the bus, I want to get off’ brigade. The MPs – working with the media – seized on the comment, and Cameron’s advisers hastily drafted a Sunday newspaper op-ed to contain the fallout. Cameron’s Bloomberg speech – promising the renegotiation and referendum – followed shortly after. Again, the pledge was at least partly tactical, aimed at keeping his Party onside and undercutting UKIP at the European and national elections.

With the referendum result, this group of MPs has entered the final chapter of their playbook. But winning the referendum does not end their battle. The much-ridiculed ‘Brexit means Brexit’ slogan uttered ad nauseam by Theresa May was aimed at winning their support by allaying concerns that a ‘reluctant Remainer’ could sell out and settle for the softest of Brexits or even a process that would lead to another referendum.

The MPs now mobilise under the title of the ‘European Research Group’. Many of its members such as Bill Cash comment that once they were part of a handful of political outsiders in the Tory Party. Today, he is part of a group of 80 or so MPs and MEPs who have been in brought in the tent to act as one of its supporting pillars. Nothing illustrated this more clearly than at the last annual Conservative conference in October 2016. Normally, this group of MPs would meet in exile a few hundred metres away from the official conference venue. This time, it was the ardent Remainers who met outside while the European Research Group and its acolytes had prime positions in the conference centre. The group meets weekly and coordinate via Whatsapp. Before the recent election, their strategy was clearly to support the Prime Minister as she goes about her task. The group’s leader, Steve Baker MP, a liberal internationalist Leaver, acted as a bridge between Number Ten and the backbenches. It is a sign of their influence that Baker was recently made a Minister in the Brexit Department.

The group will keep Mrs May in post – for now. However, they are organised and ruthless, and the moment she is seen to water down or backtrack on key pledges related to leaving the Single Market, Customs Union, or if she comes away with a less-than-optimal deal on the ‘divorce bill’, they will knock her off her political tightrope with a fatal blow.

Following the General Election, some commentators believed (and others hoped) Mrs May would soften her Brexit stance. There are forces in her Party that wish to see a different approach, and her parliamentary weakness means she cannot ignore them either. However, they will be aware that removing Mrs May is likely to lead to a more hard-line Brexit-supporting Prime Minister elected. They must tread carefully.

Sometimes to outside observers, the decision-making and the rhetoric coming from Downing Street is puzzling. However, understanding the domestic power play in Westminster is crucial to decoding the UK government’s positioning. Number Ten’s strategy can be summed up in one word: survival. Yet, ironically, some backbench MPs think far more strategically, and they have invested their life’s work in ensuring ‘Brexit means Brexit’ (means a ‘hard (or clean) Brexit’). They have run rings around Number Ten for over a decade; they aren’t going to stop now.

icon__close