Almost exactly two years ago, Theresa May was sitting in her office in Downing Street, baffled by the stance of her pro-Remain rebel Tory MPs.
“Dominic Grieve and these people need to calm down,” an exasperated Prime Minister told her colleagues. “I’m not going to do anything crazy. I’m not going to just jump off a cliff.”
According to one of the people present, May was particularly indignant that Grieve and his small band of like-minded backbenchers were terrified by the prospect of a “hard” exit, or worse, a no-deal exit.
As she tried to navigate the tricky obstacles within and without her own party, “pragmatism” had been her watchword, she told the private meeting.
But fast forward to today, and there is a growing fear among some MPs that May is now indeed preparing to do “something crazy”, and allow the UK to crash out of the European Union without a Brexit agreement.
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And with the clock ticking down to the planned exit day of March 29, some of those who know her best have told HuffPost UK that the PM is “thinking the unthinkable” of a no-deal departure.
May’s preferred option is to rescue her withdrawal agreement with the EU, by getting Brussels to agree a new legally binding form of words to assure both the Northern Irish DUP and restless Brexiteers that the UK won’t be tied indefinitely to EU trade rules.
Yet with a second “meaningful vote” on Brexit not due until possibly sometime next month, several Tory and Labour backbenchers are sceptical about their chances of stopping no-deal.
Government insiders and cabinet ministers believe that the PM has in recent weeks decided that jumping off the cliff may somehow have a softer landing than expected.
The key moment came in the days after the crushing 230-vote Commons defeat May suffered last month, as Brexiteers and Remainers united to reject her planned deal.
Acutely aware that the bulk of the 118 Tory MPs who voted against were Leavers, she was urged in a cabinet conference call to make peace with her party.
Chief whip Julian Smith and, crucially, party chairman Brandon Lewis made a forceful case that she had to find a way to accommodate her backbenches, rather than make a grand bargain with the official Labour opposition.
Smith had warned her before the vote that she would lose if she didn’t address MPs’ concerns about the so-called backstop for Northern Ireland, the guarantee in the deal to keep the province’s border open with Ireland through continuing alignment of EU rules.
A fortnight later, May was thrown a lifeline by her party after she agreed to ask Brussels for “alternative arrangements” that could win a parliamentary majority.
In recent days, May has more than ever bought into the Smith-Lewis argument that party unity has to come first, one source claims.
“She’s thrown all of her weight behind the chief whip. He’s telling her ‘your party is fucked if you do anything other than hold strong’.”
Despite a flicker of hope in recent days that May is reaching out to Jeremy Corbyn to seek common ground, few around her believe she will countenance the kind of “soft” Brexit – including some version of a UK-EU customs union – that Labour is demanding.
Even in her letter to Corbyn released on Sunday night, May signalled she was not budging from her red line that any customs union would undermine the UK’s future ability to strike independent trade deals with non-EU countries.
Two years ago, May was keeping her options open, rather than closing them down. Her first big Brexit speech, in the grand surroundings of Lancaster House in central London, allowed some wriggle room in its content, even if it pleased Eurosceptics with its hardline tone.
The man who wrote that speech was Chris Wilkins, the loyal aide who had 15 years earlier helped May draft her infamous “nasty party” speech that warned the Tories they had to reform and modernise to win back voters’ trust.
“The language in Lancaster House was really careful and said what matters here is the end not the means,” Wilkins says.
Most importantly, May said she wanted “a customs agreement with the EU”, possibly even becoming “an associate member of the customs union in some way” and stressed she could sign up to “some elements of it”. She had “no preconceived position”, she said, a phrase that reassured some Remainer Tories.
“Lancaster House quite deliberately does not say ‘no form of customs union’ because that was always the area of compromise where you could get Labour votes,” Wilkins adds.
“It was always clear you needed Labour votes, not just because you needed some kind of unified position, but also because the very thing Labour don’t want is any responsibility for Brexit.
“Politically you absolutely want to dip their hands in the blood, that would have been the sensible thing to have done.”
Even the party manifesto for 2017 still allowed room for manoeuvre on customs.
One insider says that contrary to the belief of some at Westminster, May had privately hoped that a sizeable victory would give her a way to stand up to her Brexiteers, rather than be held hostage by them.
“It felt quite clear where we were heading and that was the softest possible Brexit outside the single market, with a deal to be done was on a customs union. And it was merely a question of managing the process to get us there,” they say.
“Part of the point of the election was that if we’d got a bigger majority, we would have been able to make the compromises more readily.”
In the end, the shattering loss of the Tories’ majority appeared to severely restrict any prospect of a “hard” Brexit, simply because Labour and a handful of Conservative Remainers wouldn’t allow it.
And the enduring belief that May was heading in a pragmatic direction was constant, despite occasional licence given to Brexiteers in the cabinet.
In January 2018, on a trip with May to China, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox made plain his own red line. It wasn’t just the customs union that was the problem, it was a customs union of any kind.
“It is very difficult to see how being in a customs union is compatible with having an independent trade policy,” he told Bloomberg News.
When No.10 said Fox was speaking for the government, there was serious disquiet back in London among Remainer cabinet ministers, as well as the business community.
Ministers were calmed down, however, when May herself said she had “an open mind” about a customs “arrangement” with the EU.
In fact that pattern, of talking tough on Europe while in reality tilting towards a more moderate approach, is what has given pro-EU MPs of all stripes hope in recent months and weeks.
One former minister, who has long followed May’s career closely, tells HuffPost UK that the most encouraging version of May’s “modus operandi” on Europe was highlighted back in 2014.
At the time, the then home secretary had made a big play of opting out of 135 of the EU’s justice and home affairs rules. Stephen Parkinson, a long-time aide at the Home Office who later went on to help organise the Vote Leave campaign, was a noted Eurosceptic. Some MPs assumed Parkinson had finally influenced his boss to take a tougher stance with the EU. They were wrong.
It soon dawned on Eurosceptics that May was in fact going to optbackin to some key EU rules. The European Arrest Warrant in particular, which was loathed by Tory hardliners, won May’s strong support.
“I’ve always thought that justice and home affairs would be her strategy for this,” says the former minister.
“She talked tough, she was going to opt out of everything, it was all awful and Europe was awful. She had Dominic Raab [then a backbencher] on her back, Graham Brady, Mark Reckless and Jacob Rees-Mogg. So, she ramped up the rhetoric.
“And then in the end she opted back into about 35 of them. Her narrative was look, here’s all the 100 measures I’ve opted out of. But the 35 she opted back into were all the big ones, the European Arrest Warrant, all of the big databases.
“Most of them went along with it because they were just so exhausted by the process. They were so ground down and just glad it was resolved and ‘we’ve done something on Europe’. But the hard core were really angry with her.”
At one point, backed by David Cameron’s own desire to keep the hardline Eurosceptics in check, May even ridiculed Reckless (then a Tory MP before defecting to UKIP) in the Commons chamber, declaring it would be “reckless” to ditch key EU security arrangements.
The Eurosceptics were so furious that they even joined with Labour in trying to pull off an audacious move to ensure a vote on the European Arrest Warrant. Appalled at an attempt by Cameron and May to avoid a vote, Sir Bill Cash said the government had been “tainted with chicanery”.
In November 2014, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper called a surprise vote that ended with Cameron having to be dragged out of a white-tie event at the City’s Guildhall in order to fend off the rebellion. The government won by just nine votes.
“In the end, she took them on. She pandered to them until very late on, and then at the last minute she just effectively U-turned on all of her rhetoric, stayed with the solid, sensible security position and most of them went along with it, but the hard core were furious and felt betrayed,” said the former minister.
“I’ve always felt that she was trying to do the same thing again on Brexit. It’s why Rees-Mogg and others were so hostile and suspicious of her: we’ve seen this trick before, we can see what’s she’s doing.”
One Brexiteer former member of the cabinet says that the justice and home affairs opt-ins episode was more about May’s own rigid style of politics.
“She operates on tramlines and she doesn’t have a huge amount of agility. Also she’s very easy to be picked off by officials, who say we are at risk of this or at risk of that, rather than think actually we can do it a different way. She’s overly deferential to the obvious, predictable civil service pitch. It cuts all the way through her career,” he says.
“There was a whole lot of trivial stuff she had worked out was redundant. What she didn’t take on was PRUM [a Europe-wide DNA database], data sharing, ECJ [European Court of Justice] jurisdiction, and she didn’t have the agility to say there’s a way of opting out of this by continuing to do it a different way.
“A lot of people did feel hoodwinked at the time. I just thought she was stubborn and her heart really wasn’t in it. She took a very technical approach and the civil servants always a gave a reason why it was technically difficult.”
Ever since she became prime minister, pro-EU MPs have been hoping May was again stringing along the hardline wing of her party on Europe.
The infamous Chequers meeting of the cabinet last summer cheered many of them up, as the PM backed “regulatory alignment” with the EU in any future trade deal.
She weathered the resignations of Boris Johnson and David Davis. She then lost Davis’ successor Raab after deciding to push what looked like another soft Brexit compromise as she hammered out her withdrawal agreement with Brussels.
Then, as now, customs was the flashpoint. One Brussels source claims that May herself personally asked the EU to agree a key section that sought to “build on” a “single customs territory”. That line, along with other defects in the deal, prompted Raab to quit.
A senior MP adds: “Her rhetoric was really anti-customs, but she was actually leaning in private towards a customs union. And there was fury about the betrayal again.
“And at every point recently, I thought does she think she can just pull the same stunt again? End up doing some late U-turn, when everybody is so exhausted that she ends up with not such a hardline position.”
But several Tory Remainers, including trusted go-between Sir Oliver Letwin, have confided to colleagues that since the 230-vote defeat last month, May has entered into an irreversible pact with her Brexiteers.
“What worries me now is that it feels like something has changed,” says one MP. “It feels like she’s crossed a line now. She’s boxed herself so far in she’s lost any capacity to pivot, even though she might want to in her head, she’s stuck now.”
Even on May’s home turf of national security, where she defied her Eurosceptics to stay in the European Arrest Warrant, she has reluctantly had to agree to ‘mitigating’ measures for a no-deal outcome. This is despite the Cabinet being told by the head of MI5 Sir Andrew Parker of his concerns at the loss of UK-EU cooperation.
One Labour MP says: “Her strength has always been when she does those stern statements at times of national security crisis in parliament. She always got the judgement call right on the big serious terrorist incidents. So she could credibly do something quite strong on it [no-deal security warnings]. But it feels like when you look into her eyes, it’s like it’s gone.”
A former cabinet minister says that since the Commons backed the Graham Brady amendment on plans to explore Brexit alternatives, the mood has changed.
“It was quite an important moment for morale and morale is important in this place. People like to be supporting their prime minister. Very few people relish the opportunity to kick their prime minister,” he says. “I got the feeling it was a moment where the chief whip was being listened to more.”
A senior Brexiteer former minister adds: “The question will be now, similar to on the JHA [Justice and Home Affairs] stuff, this big issue of trust.
“She’s so difficult to read, but the key thing over everything else is her survival instincts - there’s nothing wrong with those. Credit where it’s due.
“She’s trying to navigate it week by week. I don’t think she will take a conscious decision, I think she will end up acquiescing in one or other form. And time is running out to get a Norway [soft Brexit] deal.”
One MP says that Tory Remainers are “in a state of gloom”.
“They think this is it now, that we are on a high percentage chance of just being in no-deal.”
After the Brady amendment passed to triumphant cheers from Leave-backing MPs, one cabinet minister texted a friend: “The wrong people are clapping.”
With any binding vote on stopping no-deal now unlikely to emerge until later this month, one Tory insider says the key factor has been that the PM is more afraid of her Brexiteers than Remainers.
Chief whip Julian Smith is understood to have counselled her that the danger will not come from pro-EU ministers thinking of quitting in protest.
One source says: “She’s been told – ‘You need to understand prime minister, it’s very simple maths – the ERG [European Research Group] will fuck you, fuck the Conservative party and they will throw themselves over a cliff. Your Remainer colleagues will not’. It’s who’s got the biggest balls.”
“The Remainers need a gameplan to show Julian [Smith] is wrong on this. At the moment, they are rolling over having tummies tickled. And she’s thrown all her weight behind the chief whip.
“She gets to save her party and potentially gets to live for another day. She will be the PM who delivered Brexit. She can blame Parliament and Tusk, Juncker and the EU [for no-deal] and say I managed it as best as anyone could.
“She’s home and dry as long as she sits tight with the Brexiteers who only a few weeks ago wanted her head. It’s utterly tragic.”
There are still some Remain-backing cabinet ministers who think that the PM will get her deal done. They also believe that the closer we get to March 29 without a deal, the more likely parliament will pass a binding vote to block such a scenario.
“I have always thought she doesn’t think four steps ahead, that’s not the way she thinks or operates,” one cabinet minister says.
“I’m sure she hasn’t thought of a plan to either pivot to Labour or to leave without a deal. She concentrates completely on the step in front of her and that’s what she’s doing right now in trying to get a deal. She’s doing it very sincerely.”
This minister also thinks that May has too much of a “sense of personal responsibility” to allow the huge job losses no-deal could entail. As for the party splitting over any move to back a customs union, he adds that’s overdone. “Where would they [the Brexiteers] go?”
Still, some in the party believe the key factor is that after the sizeable no-confidence vote in December (37% of her MPs voted to oust her), May now knows her days in No.10 are numbered.
Her plan to be a PM who tackled “burning injustices” has been replaced by a determination to just get Brexit delivered, no matter how.
“She used to say my legacy will not be Brexit, I want to deliver for the just-about-managings, to do the things I’ve wanted to do for 30 years in my political career, the lives I want to change,” says one ex-staffer. “And now they are absolutely consumed by it [Brexit] and they can’t see the wood from the trees.
“I used to think it was a good thing she never had any strong ideological links, that she was she was pragmatic and would balance up either side of the argument. But what was her asset is now a massive flaw. She will go wherever the wind takes her.
“A lot of people are in despair. The sensible ones have their head in their hands, the nutters we kept at the door for 40 odd years are now in control. We thought they were dead after they didn’t get rid of her. They are back in control, because they are willing to blow the house up.”
If the parliamentary and diplomatic impasse continues, May is expected to seek a short delay to Brexit to June at the latest.
But if no agreement is possible, she’s indeed ready to take the UK out without a deal, one official said. They gently point out that the PM only ever talks of “the risk” of “no Brexit at all”, not ever the reality of it.
Some in Whitehall have been told that No.10 strategy and communications chief Robbie Gibb, a committed Leaver, has floated the prospect of leaving his role this summer, once Brexit is finally delivered.
Recent party research from polling and focus groups has played a key role too. The message from a large chunk of Leave voters is that they want a “clean Brexit”.
Those who have worked closest with May say that it should not be forgotten that she places a high value on listening to public concerns about immigration, concerns that drove many people to vote Leave in 2016.
“The reason immigration is such a big thing for her is that it’s emblematic of a political class doing one thing in defiance of what the country said,” one source says.
“Brexit for her has now become that big, and that’s why she’s prepared to contemplate no-deal because ultimately it’s about delivering what people want.
“The No.10 research tells them that her ratings are stronger than ever now because she is the grown up in the room who is delivering what people want.
“People are basically saying we voted to Leave and if that means no-deal then leave means leave. And I think she’s swayed by that because of this point about politicians being trusted. But actually politics is also about showing leadership, not just responding to research.”
One former cabinet minister insists that “the clarity of no-deal is very, very popular among my constituents”.
“To understand Theresa May now on Europe, look at her DNA. And her DNA is made up of two things: one, she was the home secretary with an obsession about immigration which is matched by even few hard Brexiteers; two, she was party chairman and splitting the party is absolutely unthinkable for her.”
Crucially, MPs say she has responded to the message hammered home by the current party chairman and chief whip - that it’s time to start listening to elected Conservatives rather than advisers.
“It’s amazing that Julian has any influence because he’s been a disaster as chief whip, absolutely hopeless,” says one source. “But it is now politicians who have stepped in to take control and that’s where the party imperative is being pushed from.”
One old hand adds: “I’ve always taken the view that ultimately she is too pragmatic to be ever contemplate a no-deal scenario. But I underestimated her attachment to the Conservative party and the extent to which she, and indeed Philip, are steeped in the party.
“The whole idea was she was supposed to be a prime minister for the whole of the country. Actually, her instincts when you really test them are very Conservative party orientated.”
Some Tory Brexiteers are still wary of a final “pivot” or “betrayal” by May, though many are cheerfully counting down the days to no-deal.
But for Chris Wilkins, her former speechwriter, the consequences of quitting the EU without agreement will haunt the Tories long after May has left No.10.
“You hope there’s some very clever strategy going on, but there’s a fear that the public’s focus on getting Brexit done and the attachment to the unity of the Conservative party is potentially driving us to a no-deal scenario,” he says.
“That may feel good in the short term but would have long-term extremely damaging consequences for the party.
“Because of the lack of preparedness and the chaos that would ensue, any last semblance that the Tory party is at least competent, even if you don’t like them, would go out of the window.”