Zombie May: Cabinet ‘Palace Coup’ Unravels as Gove and Lidington Bottle It

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
JACK MONTGOMERY

Theresa May could survive the palace coup which appeared to be unfolding at breakneck speed on Saturday night, as the Cabinet ministers who were frontrunners to take over as “caretaker” leaders publicly disavow the plot.

Mrs May has clung on through numerous political reverses which seemed certain to bring her down: losing the Tory party’s parliamentary majority in the 2017 snap election; the resignations of Boris Johnson and the inaugural Brexit secretary (and later his successor) over her EU strategy; a vote of no confidence in her as party leader which saw over half her backbenchers back her removal; her government becoming the first in recorded history to be found in Contempt of Parliament; suffering a historic parliamentary defeat when she put her proposed Brexit deal to MPs (twice), and a vote of no confidence in her government by the Opposition.

The latest reported attempt to overthrow her by more than half the Cabinet appeared as though it would deliver the coup de grâce to her premiership, especially after reports that her own whips had told her she was finished — but it may now turn out to be just one more in a long line of failed insurrections.

For a time it appeared as though it was all over bar the shooting, but squabbles over who should succeed Mrs May as a so-called “caretaker” or interim prime minister may have strangled the plot at birth.

Her de facto deputy, David Lidington, was an early frontrunner — although his former position as Europe minister under David Cameron and reputation as a staunch Remainer rendered him unacceptable to Brexiteers.

Alternative choice Michael Gove, a Brexiteer and leading figure in the Vote Leave campaign during the EU referendum in 2016, was suspected of harbouring long-term leadership ambitions — by all accounts the plotters intended for the “caretaker” to trigger a normal party leadership contest in which they would not stand after breaking the Brexit impasse — and of being willing to agree an ultra-weak form of Brexit in which Britain would remain in the EU Customs Union (or “a” customs union with the bloc) and Single Market regime, which would be unacceptable to Brexiteers.

In fact, a senior source within the European Research Group (ERG) faction of Tory Brexiteers led by Jacob Rees-Mogg appeared to suggest the plot was bogus, commenting: “This stinks of a [10 Downing Street] operation to blackmail us into voting for [Theresa May’s] deal. They’ve threatened us with an election, a soft Brexit, no Brexit, and now they are threatening us with David Lidington or Michael Gove becoming PM.”

The Prime Minister may yet be toppled, and is holding an emergency summit with key Brexiteers at her official countryside retreat of Chequers in the wake of the plot — but for now confident predictions of her imminent demise appear to have been premature.

Follow Jack Montgomery on Twitter: @JackBMontgomery
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