I hate to depress everybody, but the possibility of both a leadership challenge to Theresa May and a general election is suddenly mounting.
I don’t believe this is the desired outcome of any of the political factions currently flying under the Conservative party flag, but if things go on like this, it is not hard to see how it might happen. A failure to win Commons votes on numerous aspects of Brexit, notably the Customs Union; a vote of no confidence; Theresa May stepping down or being challenged; a new leader feeling the need for a refreshed mandate; the press and social media howling for this or that; all culminating in a butterflies-in-tummy drive to the Palace.
Oddly, hardly anyone in Westminster is thinking consciously of an election, but I have noticed it is creeping up in conversations with business people, who are now seriously worried about the economy. Brexit uncertainty is the only conceivable explanation for the initial estimate of a paltry 0.1 per cent of growth in GDP in the first quarter, at a time when the world economy is barrelling along. Too many investments and business decisions are on hold.
There is also a sort of political subconscious at work here and I suspect plenty of Tory MPs secretly think that the local election result shows that Jeremy Corbyn is beatable, if only the Conservatives could find themselves a leader capable of articulating a positive vision for the country.
In this regard, it is worth watching what they get up to on social media, where they suddenly emit an extravagant joy and confidence, posting repeated photos of themselves with animals (Gavin Williamson), their numerous offspring (Jacob Rees-Mogg), asparagus and locally cooked breakfasts (Liz Truss), or Mr and Mrs May inspiring the adoring troops to yet further efforts (Brandon Lewis and James Cleverley).
You might argue that the last thing the country needs is another election and people must have taken leave of their senses to even entertain the idea. But I am afraid the hard core of Tory Remainers have indeed taken leave of their senses and would prefer to bring the Government down than concede what they regard as a matter of principle, such the preferability of a full Customs Union, over a New Customs Partnership or a Maximum Facilitation Arrangement.
Is a compromise possible? Compromise is always possible in life but much depends on vague concepts such as timing, language, the character of intermediaries and goodwill on both sides. We must take some hope from a sensible article by Brexiteer Dan Hannan last week, which suggested that the UK should remain part of the European Free Trade Association, a loose affiliation which governs the relationship of other non-EU countries with Brussels, such as Switzerland. That is just the sort of concession which ought to cheer the other side and was welcomed by Stephen Hammond, the Remainer Tory member for Wimbledon.
However, the weekend press gave few grounds for comfort. The Sunday Telegraph said that at least 12 Cabinet ministers it had spoken to were prepared to block Theresa May’s New Customs Partnership. Michael Gove said it was “flawed”. And Iain Duncan Smith told BBC’s Sunday Politics that by threatening to back membership of the Customs Union, Tory Remainers were “threatening to thrust a dagger into the heart of the Government.”
When it comes down to it, I still think that calm heads will prevail and crazy ideas like reversing the referendum and votes of no confidence will, in the end, not materialise. The only trouble is evidence for this optimism is increasingly hard to come by. The Government has lost its majority and hot heads on either side hold disproportionate power. As they say in foreign exchange markets, prepare for more volatility.