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The outburst from Anna Soubry, the Conservative MP for Broxtowe, was one of those moments that lit up the changing political landscape. She said it is “about time” the Prime Minister stood up to “the hard ideological Brexiteers”, who are, she said, “not the Tory party I joined 40 years ago – and slung ’em out”.
It would be tempting for her opponents in the Tory party – and she named them as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson – to dismiss her words as a howl of despair from the long-retreating tradition of pro-European Conservatism.
The party of Ted Heath that took Britain into the European Community 45 years ago now has just two representatives in the House of Commons prepared to vote against the Government consistently on the question of Brexit: Kenneth Clarke, who voted as an MP in 1971 to join, and Ms Soubry.
But Ms Soubry’s call on Theresa May to hold firm against the hard Brexiteers is nevertheless significant. It should remind the Prime Minister – and the rest of us – of two things. One is that a narrow majority of Conservative MPs voted, as Ms May did, to remain in the European Union in the referendum.
The hearts of Conservative Party members in the country, a dwindling band whose numbers may now be as low as 70,000 compared with the 550,000 members of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, beat in the opposite direction. About two thirds of Conservative members voted to leave.
That means that if there were a contest now, Ms May would probably be replaced as Conservative leader and prime minister by a “hard ideological Brexiteer”. It is hard to predict which of Mr Rees-Mogg, Mr Johnson and Michael Gove – the “dream team” reported by The Sunday Times at the weekend to be readying themselves – would emerge victorious from the chaos of a Tory leadership election. But, if the members were asked to choose before the final shape of Brexit had become clear, it is unlikely that they would opt, for example, for the common-sense pragmatism of Amber Rudd, the arch-Remainer.
The second fact of which Ms Soubry should remind us is that there is also a majority for a soft Brexit in the whole House of Commons. The Labour Party is just as divided as the Conservatives, and its leadership’s policy on Brexit is indistinguishable from that of the Government. But there is a majority in the House for keeping as close a relationship with the EU as possible.
It is easy to lose sight of these facts at this stage of the Brexit talks, when Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator, has an incentive to present the UK’s choice as being one between a hard Brexit or no Brexit at all.
However, in the negotiations over the next few months it is possible that the EU and the UK could find a middle way that would allow both sides to benefit from a close trading relationship.
Ms Soubry’s tirade may have been intemperate. There is certainly no prospect of either side in the Tory civil war expelling their opponents.
But she provided a public service to everyone who wants to mitigate the damaging effects of leaving the EU. She reminded them that Ms May, for all her faults, stands a better chance of negotiating a soft Brexit than any of her likely replacements. And she reminded them that, if Ms May succe, she would have more support in Parliament than any of the “dream team” could hope to.