Theresa May is in the “killing zone”. She should “bring her own noose” to meetings. A knife is being heated, as we speak, so that it can be “stuck in her front and twisted”.
You’d be forgiven for thinking these phrases came from hate mail, or the sort of unhinged death threats that pop up almost routinely now, in MPs’ email inboxes and social-media feeds and postbags. But these phrases, used with ghoulish relish about the prime minister, aren’t from online trolls. They’re quotes given anonymously by Tory backbench MPs to journalists, as Brexit negotiations reach their bitter climax.
Although the violence they’re discussing is obviously metaphorical, rather than real, women from across the political spectrum are right to call out what Labour’s Yvette Cooper called “violent, dehumanising and frankly misogynistic” language. Two years after the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered, at the height of a feverish Brexit referendum campaign, it’s beyond depressing that some MPs clearly haven’t absorbed the lesson that words can have consequences.
But the language is revealing in a different way, too, because it tells us something about power and who has it. Like the online trolls they’re starting to resemble, who fire death threats at strangers from their bedrooms, because it makes them feel marginally less inadequate about their own lives, what some Brexiter MPs seem to be expressing is rage at their own impotence. They won the referendum. So, why don’t they feel as if they're winning the argument?
If they’d genuinely had the numbers to overthrow the prime minister and install their preferred true believer, they’d have done it before now, not spent weeks making blood-curdling threats in the Sunday papers only for nothing to happen.
If they’d genuinely had the numbers to overthrow the prime minister and install their preferred true believer, they’d have done it before now, not spent weeks making blood-curdling threats in the Sunday papers only for nothing to happen. The truth is that, for months, the uber-Brexiters have been stuck, not quite able to muster the numbers in parliament to support their vision of leaving at any cost. What’s changed this week, however, is that Theresa May is now stuck, too. She lacks the numbers to support her Chequers compromise deal, and doesn’t yet have an alternative to offer instead. The end result is that we all feel stuck inside a Brexit row that seems to go around and around in increasingly demented circles, without ever really getting anywhere – except that, all the time, we’re circling closer to leaving without a proper plan.
And if the Conservative party decides to get rid of its leader in these circumstances, it won’t be because of a lot of teenage bluster about nooses and knives. It will be because a critical mass of both Remain- and Leave-supporting MPs, who once trusted May to pull something sensible together at the last minute, have concluded that, actually, that's beyond her.
It’s these wobbling MPs she was really appealing to, with her declaration on Monday that 95% of the deal is done, honest; that the end is practically in sight, so they ought to "hold their nerve". The trouble is that the remaining 5% is the hardest bit, involving an agreement on how to handle the border between Northern Ireland (which will soon be outside the EU) and the Irish Republic (which very much won’t), without destroying either the peace process or her own ability to actually govern, given she’s reliant on the votes of Northern Ireland’s DUP party in parliament. If enough Tory MPs come to the conclusion that she’s not just caught in a temporary “impasse” over the remaining 5% of the deal, but actually, properly, wheel-spinningly stuck and doesn’t actually know how to dig herself out, then she could indeed face a leadership challenge.
So, yes, it's serious.The Conservative party has some big decisions to make in coming days. All the more reason, then, to sound as if it's actually grown-up enough to be trusted with them.