Brexit rebellion falters no-confidence letters dry up and gang of five's 'pizza plot' proves too hard to swallow

Camilla Tominey
Jacob Rees-Mogg speaks to the media after submitting a letter of no confidence in Prime Minister Teresa May, outside the Palace of Westminster on November 15, 2018 - Getty Images Europe

Perhaps it was only fitting that a day after a survey found politicians to be less trustworthy than journalists, Tory MPs should be caught in a lie.

It has long been said that the most important political skill of all is an ability to count but five days on from the European Research Group’s (ERG) attempted coup on Theresa May’s leadership, the numbers still do not seem to add up.

As Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Conservative backbench committee, continues to wait patiently for that elusive 48th letter of no confidence, a so-called “pizza plot” to thwart Mrs May draft withdrawal plan also appears at sixes and sevens.

Brexiteer cabinet ministers Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove, Liam Fox, Penny Mordaunt and Chris Grayling - were supposed to meet this week to discuss amending the agreement but are now “taking five” to see if Mrs May’s deal is voted down in parliament first.

What both of these stalled schemes show is while there may be consensus that the PM’s days are numbered, it isn’t just the length of the Brexit transition period that Conservative MPs cannot seem to agree on.

1922 committee chairman Graham Brady  Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

“This is all a question of timing,” explained one senior Tory. “The delay isn’t about people supporting her but about people not wanting to be plunged into a six week hiatus while we elect a new leader. Some want to move to transition immediately. Others want to wait until she loses the vote.” Indeed the Conservatives cannot even seem to agree on how long a leadership contest would even take - with some saying six weeks and others “no more than three”.

The alternative implementation period was kicked-off in spectacular fashion last Thursday when ERG chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg and his predecessor Steve Baker led the charge at a hastily arranged press conference on the very spot outside the House of Commons where Mrs May addressed a crowd after winning the Tory leadership in 2016.

Mobbed by reporters - and emboldened by the resignations of Dominic Raab and Esther McVey - the pair announced they had submitted their own letters of no confidence in a move intended to give Sir Graham’s postman - and Number 10 - nightmares.

The following day, a Tiggerish Mr Baker announced that at least 48 MPs - and “probably a dozen more” - had told him they were prepared to topple Mrs May. “I think we are probably not far off,” he told BBC2’s Politics Live. “I think it is probably imminent.”

The somewhat less excitable Mr Rees-Mogg was better at managing expectations, stressing to reporters that the ERG did not have a collective position on Mrs May's premiership, and privately tipping off journalists not to expect anything to happen until “early next week”.

Yet that time is now upon us and still the magical threshold of 48 - which represents 15 per cent of the 315 Tory MPs in parliament - has not been breached. Meanwhile three MPs who were reported to have submitted letters - Theresa Villers, David Jones and Marcus Fysh - now claim to have not, while Philip Hollobone has suddenly emerged on the list having submitting his letter four months ago without anyone seemingly noticing.

So who is telling the truth?

Sir Graham certainly wasn’t fibbing at the weekend when he revealed that MPs do have a tendency to tell porkie pies.

Mr Baker was also pretty upfront when he told the Telegraph: “If all of the colleagues who told me they had put in a letter of no confidence had actually put one in then we’d be across the line.” Referencing the “major whipping operation” that has taken place over the weekend imploring MPs to support Mrs May, he added: “If it doesn’t happen then it is because a small group of backbenchers are fighting against the combined might of the state and the Conservative Party and all the advantages are once again with the establishment.”

Or it could just be that the Tories have been split down the middle on Europe since Maastricht - and this current state of Brexitosis is yet another symptom of what has always been the party’s Achilles heel? There is even within the ERG, with the more moderate Brexiteers blaming the “no dealers” for “scaring colleagues off”, evidenced by veterans minister Tobias Ellwood’s weekend tweet humbly reminding colleagues publicly seeking to remove the PM to “war game the full consequences”.

While united by their private condemnation of Mrs May’s faults (“she doesn’t listen”; “she’s indecisive”, “she cocked up the general election”, etc), Tory MPs currently appear to fall into three camps: the loyalists, the sack-her-nows and the sack-her-laters, with the latter category seemingly gaining momentum over the past 24 hours.

Leadership contenders Dominic Raab, Boris Johnson and David Davis

Amid speculation that the number of letters has reached 42, it is perhaps significant that six Brexit big beasts who could finally topple Mrs May: Boris Johnson, David Davis, Dominic Raab, Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Patterson and Bernard Jenkin, have so far refused to submit letters, seemingly mindful of Michael Heseltine's famous observation: “In our party the man who wields the dagger never picks up the crown”. Indeed the ERG briefed journalists to expect a statement from Brexiteers following a meeting with the Prime Minister at Downing Street, with Mr Baker telling reporters teasingly: "Confident you'll want to be there afterwards." Yet rumours former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Patterson was preparing to submit his letter of no confidence later proved unfounded. 

Just how honourable these members will be if parliament votes down Mrs May’s deal remains to be seen, but the clock is still ticking.

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