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PETER OBORNE: Tin hats on! I fear there’ll be an election in the autumn
Theresa May has been a far more resilient Prime Minister than many people expected, surviving a barrage of assaults on her leadership.
Indeed, twice — during the aftermath of last year’s General Election calamity and then after the embarrassment of her Tory party conference speech coughing fit — even some of her closest friends thought she might quit.
But by holding fast, she has increasingly earned the respect of decent and fair-minded people.
The past few weeks haven’t been easy, though.
Theresa May has been a far more resilient Prime Minister than many people expected, surviving a barrage of assaults on her leadership. Pictured: Theresa May speaking during the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions
The West’s missile attack on Syria following the alleged use of chemical weapons on its own people by the Assad regime, and the reaction to the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain, won plaudits for the PM.
It has helped her cause, of course, that there is no plausible alternative Tory leader and that the Labour Party is riven with divisions.
All that said, there loom on the horizon many more potential traps.
They follow a series of defeats for the Government’s Brexit legislation by peers with no proper mandate to overturn the will of 17.4 million voters.
Any prime minister who cannot get their way in the Commons is certain to lose office sooner or later pictured: Theresa May speaks during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons
For the fact is that next month the EU Withdrawal Bill returns to the Commons and there is no doubt it will encounter serious problems.
We had a taster this week when Mrs May was heavily defeated in the Commons on a Labour vote to keep Britain in a European customs union.
Like the earlier votes in the Lords, this setback has been dismissed as meaningless because the government whips encouraged Tory MPs not to take part.
But they would assuredly have ordered them to participate if the whips had thought that they might win. The fact they didn’t brutally exposes the Government’s weakness and the inescapable truth that Mrs May does not have a parliamentary majority in the Commons to push through Brexit on her terms.
Mrs May can probably scramble through the summer months. But the autumn will see her moment of maximum danger. Pictured: Theresa May unveils the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square, London
Without doubt, these regular parliamentary setbacks are corrosive of her authority.
Any prime minister who cannot get their way in the Commons is certain to lose office sooner or later.
I calculate that Mrs May can probably scramble through the summer months. But the autumn will see her moment of maximum danger.
This will be the time when MPs will vote on a matter that truly does matter.
This is the vote on the deal that the Government strikes with Brussels on Britain’s relations with the EU after Brexit. She has rightly promised Parliament the final decision on her negotiations.
Mrs May could resign as Tory leader, in which case there would be an immediate contest to be her successor. Pictured: Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson leaves from 10 Downing Street in central London
With an Opposition baying for her blood and a hard core of anti-Brexit Tory rebels, unless matters change a great deal, I can’t see how Mrs May will win that vote.
And if she loses, Britain would then enter a period of grave political uncertainty.
Mrs May could resign as Tory leader, in which case there would be an immediate contest to be her successor. The victor — perhaps Philip Hammond or Boris Johnson — would then battle to get parliamentary consent for their own version of a Brexit deal.
Alternatively, Mrs May could press for a vote of confidence in her Government.
If she won, she would have to struggle on. If she lost — which, I believe, would probably be the case — the constitution dictates that Jeremy Corbyn, as Opposition Leader, should be given the opportunity to form a government.
The victor — perhaps Philip Hammond or Boris Johnson — would then battle to get parliamentary consent for their own version of a Brexit deal. Pictured: Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond walks in Downing Street in central London
Mr Corbyn would begin talks with the Scottish National Party (which has 35 MPs), the 12 Lib Dem MPs as well as other small parties in an attempt to cobble together a minority government.
If he succeeded, Mr Corbyn would have to begin his own Brexit negotiations with Brussels.
Many believe he might achieve a better deal than that offered to the Tories because of the Brussels establishment’s longstanding hostility to what it sees as the Europhobe Tory party.
However, if Mr Corbyn was unable to form a government, the third General Election in three years would have to be held.
Faced with this unhappy prospect, it is not surprising that most sane people dearly hope Theresa May finds a Brexit solution that satisfies everyone in the parliamentary Tory Party.
Meanwhile, outside Westminster, pressure is building on the PM from business circles to deliver a soft Brexit. Many firms argue fervently that the clean break which hardline Brexiteers want would damage the country’s ability to do business in the EU.
Privately, many companies are talking about rethinking their strategy.
For example, the Japanese ambassador has warned that firms such as Nissan and Toyota in the UK that sell in the EU market would relocate if they no longer had access to the Single Market after March 2019.
Though I voted for Brexit and instinctively support national independence, it’s no good pretending these are not truly serious issues.
Every day, we have a shorter time in which to strike a deal. It’s less than a year until Britain officially leaves the EU.
So far, Mrs May’s nature means she has delayed and fudged in order to retain the support of both sides. Although this tactic has worked well so far, it can’t for much longer.
She needs to make up her mind and spell out in detail the Government’s final Brexit strategy. Inevitably, this will risk Cabinet resignations, the weakening of her position in the Commons and even a split inside the Tory party.
If that is the case, so be it.
The alternative is chaos and confusion. And that is what neither the 17.4 million Britons who voted Leave nor the 16.1 million who voted Remain deserve.
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