With two resignations in one week, four Westminster watchers discuss whether the Conservative leader and her party can cling on to power.
It’s hard to remember a government so racked by crisis
“Weak and stable” is the joke about Theresa May’s leadership apparently doing the rounds amongst Conservative MPs. It may not be very funny, but it’s an apt description of the paradox inherent in May’s premiership. Lacking in all authority, her government is making absolutely no progress on the key issues, from Brexit talks to the impending NHS winter crisis. But there’s also no way out for her: she remains in uncomfortable suspended animation, held in place by a split Conservative party that won’t let her go for fear of what comes next.
You can see why European leaders – looking on at what’s unfolding here in Britain – are reportedly undertaking contingency planning for what happens if May should topple. Britain has always been viewed in Europe as stable and predictable, if a sometimes annoying thorn in the side.
But it’s hard to remember a time when a British government was so racked by crisis after crisis. There may yet be more government scalps claimed by the sexual harassment crisis enveloping Westminster. And there are a number of big hurdles ahead: the government is at real risk of defeat on rebel amendments to the EU withdrawal bill next week; and the week after will see the chancellor confirm that the state of the public finances is even worse than expected.
Yet I’d be surprised if May didn’t last until the end of Brexit talks. Yes, she’s a hostage to her own party. There’s no better sign of this than the fact she’s unlikely to use Priti Patel’s forced resignation to do a full reshuffle to impose her authority, but simply replace her with an appointment most likely to keep the peace. But Conservative MPs won’t seek to unseat her for now. Who really wants to take over the poisoned chalice of getting Britain through the Brexit talks, only to be blamed for an outcome that cannot keep all Conservatives happy? And at best, the upheaval of a Tory leadership contest won’t solve anything; at worst would trigger a general election that delivers Prime Minister Corbyn to No 10. Weak and stable it is.
There’s no replacement for May nor appetite for election
Theresa May is in a stronger position than the press is willing to admit. Before the election, her frailties were ignored. Since that time, a narrative of extreme vulnerability has taken hold. Yet she remains in Downing Street, and the loss of two ministers who were found in different ways to have misbehaved does not change the powerful reasons for keeping her there. This summer she offered the British people the chance to turn her into an elected dictator, and they decided in their wisdom they would rather keep her as a prime minister who must operate with a degree of tact.
There is no popular demand for another election – the last one was an election too many – and no popular call for some particular individual to replace her. Nor does the Conservative party have a replacement for her in mind. On the great issue of the day, which is Brexit, the party is split. It recognises that the referendum decision must be implemented, but also that to implement it with gung-ho gusto, of the kind that Boris Johnson could provide, would be perilously divisive.
The time may well come when in order to achieve Brexit, a Gordian knot needs to be cut. But neither the country nor the party is ready for that. The clear preference is for May to continue with the difficult, perhaps impossible, task of disentangling the knot. Her duty is to carry on with this unenviable task. And since she is a dutiful woman, that is probably what she will do.
Scandals alone do not bring down a prime minister
Most modern prime ministers feel vulnerable a lot of the time, sometimes with good cause. Yet most endure for much longer than the feverish speculation around them might suggest. May is unusually weak because she called an election earlier than necessary, lost her party’s overall majority and stayed on in No 10. This is the explanation for all current chaos.
When Edward Heath lost his party’s overall majority in the February 1974 election he ceased to be prime minister within days. The tumultuous frenzy of events that follows May’s authority-shrinking election is inevitable. But scandals alone do not bring down a prime minister. May will continue to find replacements for ministers such as Priti Patel, who were never especially powerful in the first place.
However, they do mean that leadership becomes a form of political hell. A prime minister cannot control the shape of scandals, or their form, and lives in fear of the next revelation. Only rarely is a prime minister strengthened by a cabinet reshuffle as May conducts her second within a week.
Yet it is Brexit that is the bigger threat to her. She faces a negotiation of impossible complexity, made more daunting by her misjudged statements early in her leadership. Before the election she was stronger than she realised. After the election she is weak. The wider instability means the Conservatives would be doomed if there were an election, which means that in spite of the paralysis within a government of bewildered powerlessness there will not be an election.
May should go, but the Tories won’t want to risk losing power
Let’s put the dispatching of the BBC helicopter to follow Priti Patel’s ministerial car down to a slow news day, and forget the brouhaha for a second. The question of whether Theresa May should remain as prime minister is much more prosaic than that. If you had a boss who lacked the authority to fire anyone in the workplace, regardless of how damaging their behaviour was, would that be a sustainable situation? Obviously not, and the same is true for May.
On a purely functional level, she cannot remain leader of the Conservative party because she can no longer fulfil the basic requirements of the job.
But that’s not the question the Tories will be asking. They’ll be assessing May’s future according to the effect her departure will have upon their ability to retain power. There’s nothing the Tories love more than power, and they cling to it like barnacles lining the bottom of a schooner. They certainly won’t be letting go when the alternative is Jeremy Corbyn, a man they view as having been directly beamed into Westminster from the October Revolution. And as long as there is no obvious successor in sight, it seems doubtful that most Conservative MPs would risk a drawn-out, publicly fought leadership challenge that could end up making their government appear illegitimate. Occasional public humiliations make very little difference to the Tories’ overall position: until their golden new leader emerges blinking into the sunlight, they’re stuck with Theresa May. And so are we.