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Theresa May lives to fight another day after crucial meeting

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David Cameron used to describe waiting to appear at meetings of the 1922 Committee as “exercise book down the trousers time”.

The former prime minister used to stand in the corridor outside committee room 14, waiting – as is the tradition – to be summoned inside to address Tory MPs.

He used to enjoy banter with the journalists in the corridor, exchange gossip, tell funny stories about his family – and once brought Arnold Schwarzenegger with him.

Theresa May doesn’t do banter, gossip or funny stories. And the idea of socialising with the star of films like The Terminator and Total Recall would no doubt horrify her.

So unlike her predecessor, when she arrived for her appearance at “the ’22”, she swept along the corridor imperiously, past a huge crowd of journalists, with her large entourage of Downing Street aides and protection officers trailing in her wake.

Burly Mark Spencer, a ruddy-faced farmer from Notts who’s built like an EU food mountain and is the beefiest member of the government whips’ office, had been posted at the door.

His boss – the tall, wiry Julian Smith, who moves like John Cleese in Fawlty Towers but is much more menacing – was highly visible, choreographing events and whispering into the ear of his dapper deputy, the splendidly named Christopher Pincher.

As the PM glided past Mr Spencer – as he held his stomach in – and entered the room, there was the inevitable banging of desks – though not as loud as it is sometimes on these occasions. Some journalists in the corridor even suggested it was low-key and muted.

What was unusual about this meeting was that as well as the desk banging, someone – presumably the beefy Mr Spencer – banged the door from the inside, no doubt to make the desk banging sound louder for the benefit of the journalists.

This meeting of the ’22 was even more packed than usual. Most of the cabinet was present. Perhaps some of the usual backbench absentees had been tempted along by the unsavoury advance billing of a “show trial”, “killing zone” “assassination” and claims she should “bring her own noose”.








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Video:
PM faces hostile questioning over Brexit

The room was so packed that latecomers couldn’t get in. Colonel Bob Stewart, the decorated war hero who penetrated enemy lines in Bosnia on numerous occasions, couldn’t penetrate the doors of the packed committee room 14.

Within minutes of the meeting starting, Norman Tebbit – hardline Brexiteer and no fan of Mrs May – left the room. “Is this a walkout, Norman?” journalists asked him. It wasn’t. Tory peers were off to vote in a division in the House of Lords.

The Home Secretary Sajid Javid told me the PM made a “very strong, positive speech”. His predecessor, the ultra-loyalist Amber Rudd, said she made an “emotional and personal” speech and “won the room”.

But after her speech the prime minister faced some challenging questions from her eurosceptic foes, including Steve Baker, Andrew Bridgen, Sir Edward Leigh, Philip Davies and Nadine Dorries.

Mr Bridgen asked what her three achievements were from the EU talks. She gave him three, including UK courts having supremacy over European Courts.

Mr Baker, who heads the hardline European Research Group and was one of the first MPs to arrive for the meeting, asked about “no-deal”, while Sir Edward asked for a guarantee that the UK was definitely leaving the EU. She gave it.

Mr Davies, the Yorkshire terrier from Shipley who regularly snaps at the prime minister’s heels, asked if the 17 million Leave voters would be able to recognise the deal she delivers as the Brexit they voted for. Yes, she replied.

Ms Dorries asked if her Brussels negotiator, the much criticised Olly Robbins, was freelancing when he negotiated an extension of the transition period. He was not negotiating, she said.

Before the meeting, the outspoken Ms Dorries had tweeted: “PM attending ’22 meeting. Already rigged by the whips. Loyalist Chequers supporters will be dispersed about the room to desk bang and cheer. The whips will communicate via WhatsApp. The first questioner will already have been agreed and the questions planted. It’s a PR farce.”

And after the meeting, the excitable Michael Fabricant – a Leaver but a loyalist – told me the meeting had indeed been a “love-in”. “It’s not Daniella in the lion’s den, it’s a petting zoo,” he said. “She lives to fight on. If she gets a good deal, she’ll be a heroine.”

Eurosceptic Daniel Kawczynski – the tallest MP in the Commons – told me the PM had strengthened her position this week, while Antoinette Sanbach – almost as tall – said: “You don’t change jockey halfway through a race.”



Transport Secretary Chris Grayling




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Video:
Grayling: PM needs support now more than ever

Strengthening the PM’s position is what the wily Chief Whip Mr Smith, with his meticulous stage-managing of the meeting, had intended all along. It was he, no doubt, who recommended a U-turn 24 hours earlier and advised her to attend.

Only the inscrutable and famously discreet Sir Graham Brady, who chairs the 1922 Committee and wisely allowed questions from the hardline Brexiteers to avoid allegations of a stitch-up, knows how close the mutineers are to the magic 48 letters required to trigger a confidence vote in the PM.

But on the evidence of this meeting, the prime minister has won yet another reprieve – for the time being – and lives to fight yet another day.

It’s unlikely that any more will have been written after this meeting of the ’22. And – on this occasion, at least – Theresa May certainly didn’t need a strategically placed exercise book to make it less painful.

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