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Nigel Hastilow: Turns out clearing up really is a girl’s job

By Nigel Hastilow | Nigel Hastilow | Published:

As Oliver Hardy and the entire Conservative Party might say: ‘Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.’

Prime Minister Theresa May told her ragged band of Tory MPs at their first meeting after the disastrous election: ‘I got us into this mess, I’m going to get us out.’

That’s easy for her to say but a lot harder for her to do, if only because there are several people itching to take over from her as Prime Minister. Boris Johnson is the populist choice; David Davis is another option; Amber Rudd will also be sniffing the wind. And no doubt others think they are in with a chance of immortality as well.

Mrs May won’t have time to get the Tories out of the mess. She’s a goner. But the last thing the country needs now is a contest for the party leadership.

After the chaos of the election, we desperately need a period of calm. That will be hard to achieve given the controversy over a deal with the Democratic Unionists and the rows over what exactly the Government hopes to achieve in the Brexit talks. And it’s impossible to believe the contenders for the top job will simply sit on their hands in the coming weeks or months. Lobbying, arm-twisting, deals and plots are now unavoidable. Everything they say and do will be analysed for evidence of ambition.

Yet even Boris Johnson seems to have got the message it has to be a reasonably long game. He may have suddenly come over all loyal and responsible but even that is interpreted as proof of his takeover plot – he’s waiting until the time is right to strike.

Waiting in the wings – Boris Johnson

The Prime Minister will not lead the Tories into the next General Election but the country needs some peace and quiet for a while.

We might be lucky. The Tories need time to regroup and work out why it went so horribly wrong. The wisest course is to take their time and leave Mrs May to muddle through as best she can.

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It would make sense for her to remain in Downing Street for the duration of the Brexit negotiations, which are due to last two years.

She’s going to have her work cut out handling that. Having gone into the election promising immigration controls, withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the European court and departure from the single market – the so-called ‘hard Brexit’ – the whole thing is back in the melting pot.

Labour and the Tories pay lip-service to the will of the people as expressed in the referendum. In truth there’s quite probably a majority of MPs in Parliament who would vote to stay in the EU if they were given the chance.

All the usual suspects are now lining up against her – even David Cameron, whose only contribution to the General Election campaign was to Tweet a picture of his and his wife Samantha’s naked feet lying on a bed.

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There’s a real danger Mrs May will be forced into a Brexit which leaves almost everything unchanged. The Remainers want the free flow of people because, they say, so many British companies and the NHS need cheap foreign labour to survive. They demand membership of the single market because, they say, British business will lose out if we were to leave it.

They insist on open borders not least because the DUP is not prepared to see any significant division on the ground between Ulster and the Irish Republic. And they say we can’t have these things unless we agree to subject ourselves to the rulings of the European court.

At best they might agree to some sort of semi-detached settlement which means we no longer elect Euro-MPs, have a seat in the Council of Ministers or appoint EU commissioners – but we’ll still have to pay money into the EU’s coffers, quite possibly as much as we fork out at the moment. In other words, we will remain members of the EU in everything but name.

This ‘Brexit lite’ does not remotely resemble what most people imagined when they voted to leave the EU, but the Government is so weak the Remainers are seizing the initiative and will do everything they can to frustrate the will of the people.

This will be tough to manage. Mrs May is surrounded by enemies in her own cabinet – hard-line Brexiteers like Liam Fox and Priti Patel and hard-line Remainers like Chancellor Philip Hammond. Balancing the differences inside the Cabinet will be hard; balancing them inside Parliament will be almost impossible.

Things will fall apart but any challenger for the Prime Minister’s job will want to watch and wait.

An election-weary Britain could do with a rest. Any would-be Prime Minister would be wise to give Mrs May every chance to deal with the chaos she has made.

Everyone knows she’ll have to go but, in Westminster at least, cleaning up the mess is definitely a girl’s job.

Nigel Hastilow

By Nigel Hastilow

Express & Star columnist

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