What to do with a rebel MP who has made it her mission to campaign against the government’s stated policy and is dominating the airwaves with her disobedience?
I am referring to Anna Soubry, and her gripes last weekend about how the “35 hard ideological Brexiteers who are not Tories” should be kicked out of the party.
Her attacks on the Prime Minister and threats to quit the Conservatives have been met with a deluge of criticism outside Downing Street, but Number 10 has been characteristically silent on Soubry’s insubordination.
Britain’s first past the post system necessitates that parties span a broad spectrum of views. Soubry could be reminded that her own soft Remainer wing of the Conservatives is equally removed from the Tory mainstream.
This is, after all, a party whose list of future leadership contenders is topped by the eccentric Catholic traditionalist Jacob Rees-Mogg and the working-class lesbian from Glasgow, Ruth Davidson.
The problem, then, is not that Soubry is radically opposed to one of the government’s key policies. It is that May’s leadership is so weak and her vision for Brexit so vague that any Conservative MP with an idea or an axe to grind can take to the airwaves and have their shot at setting the agenda.
Soubry’s outburst came after Rees-Mogg attacked Treasury officials for “fiddling the figures” on Brexit – a rather unchivalrous move, given that civil servants are unable to defend themselves in the public sphere. His comments were slammed by the home secretary Amber Rudd, who promptly called him out for being “wrong”.
This followed the government’s embarrassment last week when the Brexit impact assessments were leaked. The accuracy of these forecasts is up for debate (especially given the abysmal track record for economic predictions recently), but it was still eye-watering to see Brexit minister Steve Baker admitting before parliament that he hadn’t read them, then say dismissively that government forecasts were “always wrong”.
Under a strong leader, government ministers would not publicly slam government forecasts, cabinet secretaries would not sling mud at individual MPs, backbenchers would not feel empowered to go after civil servants, and former ministers would not suggest a tenth of MPs should be expelled from the party.
Alas, the Tories have Theresa May.
This lack of discipline – characterised by numerous gaffes from cabinet ministers and the reshuffle debacle last month – stems from May’s chronic indecisiveness. If the government – and, indeed, the country – knew where it was going on Brexit, dissent could be handled and dissenters quashed.
As it is, May has spent 19 months dodging and fudging, pretending Brexit can be all things to all people, and losing every scrap of authority on the way.
Take the Customs Union.
Back when May was riding high in the polls in January 2017, her Lancaster House speech clearly acknowledged that the priority was for post-Brexit Britain to be able to sign trade deals with non-EU countries, and that full membership of the Customs Union did not allow for this. The speech also mentioned the importance of maintaining an open border with the Republic of Ireland, prohibiting drastic regulatory divergence between the UK and the EU.
These aims are not incompatible – or rather, they weren’t at the time. May could have used her political capital a year ago to devise a bespoke customs arrangement (as her chief EU adviser Ollie Robbins is now struggling with), that entailed some degree of regulatory alignment but allowed the UK to sign its own trade deals.
The Rees-Moggs of the Tory party might have grumbled that any alignment was too much, and the Soubrys might have slammed the compromise as inadequate, but overall the reaction would have been positive, and businesses on both sides of the channel that are now vocally condemning the government for lack of clarity would have had a year by now to get their Brexit plans in order.
Instead, May wasted her influence, called an ill-advised election, and kicked the question down the road.
The same goes for EU immigration. May had a 17-point approval rating this time last year. She could have put forward a controlled but open immigration policy to ensure the UK continued to get the talent that our businesses – particularly in London – need from Europe, without taking too much of a personal hit.
Now, she is powerless and paralysed, held hostage by backbenchers on both the left and the right.
Not for the first time, May could do with learning a lesson from Alexander Hamilton in the hit musical. “I’d rather be divisive than indecisive,” Hamilton tells his hesitant, cautious friend.
Soubry understands the power of being decisive – if divisive. So does Rees-Mogg, and a significant proportion of the cabinet.
Until May follows suit, she will find herself forever torn between the loudest dissenting voices in her party, governing by reaction rather than vision. Anna Soubry isn’t the problem. The Prime Minister is.