Brexit: War breaks out in Conservative Party

Theresa May Image copyright Reuters

Theresa May will front up in Brussels later - still the prime minister, still officially in charge.

One cabinet minister last night told me the whole challenge to her had been "futile", suggesting it hadn't really changed much. But it really has.

Mrs May has a temporary shield from another direct call for her departure from her own MPs. Angry Brexiteers can't try to move her out for another year in the same way.

That on its own is a sigh of relief certainly for her supporters, who were claiming a "good result" last night. But that does not remotely protect her from the brutal reality that she, right now, has no workable Brexit policy that can make it through the Commons.

Those who were pushing to force her out on Wednesday simply won't give up. Just watch their resistance as, and when, a modified compromise with the EU actually makes it to a Commons vote.

Right now there's no chance they will back her. And some of them might, just might, be willing to contemplate the nuclear option - to join with opposition MPs if they call for a vote of no confidence of the whole House of Commons.

War, not peace, has broken out. One government minister, Alistair Burt, tweeted: "They never, ever, stop. Votes against them, letters going in late - nothing matters to the ERG. After the apocalypse, all that will be left will be ants and Tory MPs complaining about Europe and their leader."

And in order to survive, the prime minister had to give up the possibility of taking her party into the next election.

When prime ministers do that - whether it was Tony Blair after the failed curry plot to get rid of him, or David Cameron's kitchen confessional where he stunned his colleagues by admitting he wouldn't seek a third term - what power they have starts to drain away. With Mrs May's authority already at a low ebb, what one of her loyal colleagues said would be a "little more time", got even harder.

She'll face the EU today to plead for more meaningful concessions. But there's no sign of the kind of transformation in her Brexit compromise that could transform her fortunes at home. The expectation right now is that at some point she will have to change tack on Brexit.

But how? When? Cabinet ministers were already privately pointing in two different directions on Wednesday - some talking of an increase in the chances of no deal, others hoping this could be a moment to pivot to a softer compromise that could attract Labour MPs.

Of course if we've learnt one thing about the prime minister in these two years, it's that she is not to be underestimated.

Her chances have been written off so many times, then assumption and expectation proved to be wrong. But don't mistake the fact that she's still in her job this morning for meaningful security for the government.

Because just when the prime minister truly needs to get her party together, its rival tribes might be now set on a course to pull her - and themselves - apart.

As has so often been the pattern for this premiership, Number 10 scales one summit only to find it's false, with a meaner one behind.

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