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Five years on from the Brexit vote, what if Theresa May was still prime minister?

·6 min read
Former prime minister Theresa May in the House of Commons (PA)
Former prime minister Theresa May in the House of Commons (PA)

August 2021

Theresa caught her breath. She stopped at the top of a small ridge and turned round, expecting Philip, as he always was, to be a short distance behind her. When the television cameras were on the couple, they had to walk side by side at a frustratingly slow pace, but out here in the seclusion of Gornergrat, she could stretch her legs. Philip didn’t mind; he never did.

She turned, shielding her eyes from the sun to look at her husband of 41 years next month, and smiled. Even in her darkest moments, she found the fresh air and isolation of Zermatt to be rejuvenating. Now, on the precipice of her greatest political triumph, it was exhilarating.

The irony wasn’t lost on her. The most (in)famous trip she took here was back in July 2017, when she had decided to call that snap general election. Look at how that ended. What a nightmare. But now, in the summer of 2021, she was ready to go again. There were whisperings about another vote – there always were – but no one knew, not really.

They thought she would wait until summer 2022, when things would be properly “back to normal”, but she knew better. Don’t let things drift; strike while the iron is still hot. She had learned that the hard way. And why not? There was no serious opposition to her in the party any more. The raucous briefing wars that had characterised those horrible two years from 2017 to 2019 had quietened to the sound of a whimper.

Even Boris Johnson, the bane of multiple Conservative leaders’ existence, wasn’t making much of an impact with his silly Covid Recovery Group and his increasingly inconsequential Telegraph articles. He didn’t have the numbers, and he knew it. All of those weak, weak men now pledged fealty to her and no one else.

March 2019

After years of painful political machinations, it had only taken one afternoon for her to outmanoeuvre her challengers, decisively proving them all wrong, again. It was the morning of the dreaded 1922 Committee meeting. Her director of communications, Robbie Gibb, was uncharacteristically silent as he sat in her office, reading and rereading the speech that she was to give that evening.

It was sad that it had come to this, but she was to offer to stand down ahead of the next stage of Brexit talks if they finally gave in and passed her Brexit Bill. Even though she had made her choice, she couldn’t help but run through the options in her head, just one more time.

She knew that one of the reasons why she was so reluctant to go was because her replacement would likely be Boris. She admonished herself for being so churlish, but she could be honest to Philip and Robbie that it bothered her. She had tried everything else: offered those Labour rebels much more than a Conservative prime minister should have had to; piled pressure on them when that failed. Her luck had run out.

They’ll be gone at the next general election either way, she thought.

By that point, the numbers were so close that she had almost hourly calls from MPs, begging her to give it one more try. It wasn’t her they needed to call, she wanted to scream. But that was when good fortune knocked on her door – or, indeed, Caroline Flint did.

Without waiting for an answer, the Labour MP for Don Valley had barged straight in. Rude. Out of breath. “We’ve got them!” she exclaimed. “They’re in. 17 in total. They’re in!”

Everything happened so quickly after that. Bercow, finally caving in and allowing another vote on 29 March, of all days. The man was always desperate for drama. She watched triumphantly as one after another, seventeen Labour MPs made clear that they would vote for the deal, Withdrawal Agreement, Political Declaration and all. Flint had come through, though it had taken her long enough.

Driven by a mix of vocal constituent anger, loathing toward [Jeremy] Corbyn or, like Kate Hoey, much deeper ideological reasons, they certainly made for an unusual grouping. But she’d only had to make minor concessions in the end, which made no difference to her final goal. Pass the deal this year, in full, and get Brexit done.

Oh, the pained expressions on John McDonnell’s and Tom Watson’s faces. She knew then that it was over. And so did everyone else. The second that Julian Smith, her ever-reliable chief whip, started recording the new names, the previously coy Tories saw the way the wind was changing and realised that the time for abstaining was truly over. The vote count took longer than normal; the tension in the chamber, palpable. She could faintly hear the man with the megaphone. She twitched the speech she was holding. She had waited a long time to give this and intended to savour every single victorious word.

316 for. 314 against.

The sound in the chamber was unlike anything she had heard before. Speed was key here. Stand up tall. Deliver the speech – finally – and watch Labour implode. Stare down the ERG. They couldn’t exactly ask for another vote, or for a different one. The tweet doing the rounds was by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, gleefully explaining, “This vote is a first, in that well over half of the House will be furious it passed. And yet it somehow did.”

It was over the course of the next month that Theresa first considered calling an early election. She knew that Boris, [Steve] Baker and the Brexiteers were regrouping, waiting for another moment to strike, even as they pledged their loyalty while talking to Kay Burley on the green. They would find another reason to try to oust her; that was obvious. But even they knew they had missed their moment. She was safe for this year.

With some notable exceptions, she was riding high on the praise from her party. Philip Hammond, for his part, knew that his time was up. He had told her privately that when she next reshuffled, he would like to step down as Chancellor. The idea of actually delivering Brexit was one he could not consider. She would soon happily oblige. Others were, perhaps, taking it too far, with Rishi Sunak’s interview for The Spectator a bit sycophantic even for her taste. Angling for a promotion from his role as a junior minister, as ever. “Watch out for that one,” Ken Clarke had told her, only half joking.

But it had genuinely pleased her to see some of the more sensible members of the party return to the fold. Rory Stewart, Antoinette Sandbach, Sam Gyimah – all friends and colleagues who were to play pivotal roles in the fight against Covid but who had been pushed to breaking point by Boris, Michael Gove and the other “Spartans” in the Brexit debate.

Labour was having an awful time of it. The lack of retribution for the seventeen MPs who’d voted for her deal had finally pushed the party’s Remainiac wing over the edge. The press said they had lost over 100,000 members in the week since the vote after their calls for the rebels to be expelled had been ignored.

Clearly, Corbyn and McDonnell were at odds; their conflicting comments to the media were excruciating, if satisfying, to watch. The posturing of what felt like every single Labour MP to take over the leadership was welcome, in a way. Not only had Labour helped pass her deal; they seemed even more determined to implode than they had before.

“Prime Minister Priti ... And other things that never happened”, a book of political counterfactuals edited by Duncan Brack and Iain Dale, published on 27 July 2021 by Biteback, priced £16.99

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