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A Glimpse of the Mood in UK Politics

The mood in the Conservative Party is bleak. Many of the political challenges with Brexit can be traced back to the 2017 election. Prime Minister Theresa May lost her majority and was only able to retain power by making a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland.

The arithmetic in Parliament is such that if even a small number of Conservative members of Parliament (MPs) defy their own government, then (alongside the opposition) they can block any progress on almost any matter. For this reason, those at more extreme wings of the Conservative Party, whether for a hard Brexit and or for no Brexit at all, have been able to stall all progress.

This led to Theresa May, in an act of desperation to find the votes in Parliament, reaching out to the opposition. An already besieged and unpopular leader asking for support from her political opponents has gone down extraordinarily badly with many of her own MPs. There is no clear mechanism to remove her as leader, but for the first time, those who seek her crown are openly and properly organising their own campaigns.

It is doubtful whether agreement between the government and opposition is even possible. If it is, it is likely to require so “soft” a Brexit as to infuriate large tracts of the Conservative Party. The much-touted solution of Customs Union membership is far more controversial than some commentators assume. Alongside Labour Party rebels, so many Conservative MPs would defy such a deal that even with the official opposition on board, it might not pass.

With the long extension to October now agreed, Theresa May looks set to attempt to hold on to power. As such, we can expect more drift, infighting and several catastrophic electoral moments for the Conservatives. In the local elections, they are defending seats last fought at the 2015 high watermark. In the now-likely European elections, even some Conservative MPs are openly refusing to say they will vote for their own party.

These moments and many more could finally topple the Prime Minister. But without a clear mechanism to force such an outcome, she could equally continue to cling on in defiance of all precedent. The leadership contenders who have geared up in recent weeks could now face a longer campaign than they had hoped. Whether they can maintain momentum, and avoid disaster, remains to be seen.

© Copyright 2019 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP

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About this Author

James Wharton senior advisor Squire PB
Senior Advisor

James Wharton is a senior advisor in the firm’s European Public Policy Practice. Previously, James was a member of Parliament for the constituency of Stockton South from 2010 to 2017.

In 2013, James took the first successful Private Members Bill legislating for a referendum on the UK’s EU membership through the House of Commons. The bill was then defeated in the House of Lords. Under David Cameron, James served as the Minister for Local Growth and the Northern Powerhouse in the Department for Communities and Local Government from 2015 to 2016. Here, he took the Cities and Local...

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