The idea was simple. The EU had dominated Thatcher’s leadership, Major’s leadership, and now Cameron’s leadership as well. A referendum would put the issue to bed for a generation.
Cameron must have been quite pleased with his cunning plan. But then he lost. The grand idea of putting the EU question to bed, has instead simply ripped open the fissures.
With just days to go before the final deal needs to be agreed, May’s objective for the Conservative Party’s conference is set low – survival. This conference has been dominated by Brexit, and no side is happy. The awkward squad on the Remain side begrudge May’s decision to leave the Single Market and Customs Union and the Brexiteers are not happy with the Chequers plan. Yet there is no time to start again – nor indeed certainty that the plan on the table can be made to work. Instead Theresa May is simply the punching bag for their anger, frustration, and perhaps, also for their ambitions.
Amongst all this has been the serious and difficult negotiations that are yet to follow. With an opposition threatening to vote against the deal, Parliament straining for its own influence in the process and the EU seemingly frustrated by the UK’s lack of flexibility, May’s fights are not just confined to the Party Conference. Yet, in the coming weeks, all these battles must be won – but losing one might mean losing them all.
Her position is not one to be envied.
But there are silver linings for May. Her Cabinet has been loyal and disciplined throughout conference, and backed her Chequers plan, despite its unpopularity, and her critics have stayed their hands and do not seem to be about to challenge her imminently.
Yet there is a growing consensus that today’s speech might have been May’s last Party Conference speech as Prime Minister. The challenge for the Conservative Party is that, even if May goes, the spectre of the UK’s relationship with the EU won’t have gone away. Whoever succeeds her would face more negotiations, more hard questions, more political infighting, and yes, their own batch of potential political challengers.
Fundamentally the Brexit question is not May’s problem – it’s one for the Conservative Party. May’s departure does not solve anything.
For decades the Party has struggled to decide what future it wants with the EU. That difficult question needs an answer – soon. If the Conservatives can’t find an answer to rally around – it doesn’t matter who leads them – it will affect them all collectively.