Trips abroad are notoriously risky for Prime Ministers in anything but their pomp. Lines of communication become stretched, with news from Parliament and home being relayed second-hand. The team of advisers, press officers and civil servants is smaller than it would be in Downing Street, reducing its capacity to support her. The assorted journalists travelling with her also have more direct access than normal, and are also operating on the same over-extended lines of communication to events at home, too. All the while there may well be people back in the UK who think that the absence of the Prime Minister is the perfect opportunity to move against her.
All in all, leaving the country when embattled brings a variety of dangers.
There are certainly plenty of wobbles underway at the moment, while Theresa May is in China. Ministerial discipline has slipped (further), with people tweeting bizarre comments in conflict with Government policy apparently without any serious consequences. An unnamed “senior” (but not Cabinet) minister is reported to be considering quitting in order to criticise the Prime Minister. And last week’s speculation about the number of letters lodged with Sir Graham Brady is still echoing in people’s minds.
As the boat rocks, people start to point fingers at those they believe are responsible. So who might want a push to get rid of May at this particular juncture, and why? Here are a few possibilities:
- The simply fed-up. Less high-flown than any grand conspiracy is the obvious and mundane fact that quite a few people have just had enough. The General Election campaign, and its eventual failure, frustrated and disillusioned more than a few MPs and activists. Other cock-ups since, such as the reshuffle, have bolstered their numbers. Only around a quarter of Party members in our survey want the Prime Minister gone now (rather than before the next election), but that’s a figure which has grown sizeably.
- The permanently aggrieved. While the previous group have reacted – sometimes in sorrow, rather than in anger – to events in recent months, there are of course those who have bitterly disliked May from the outset. Past run-ins when she was Home Secretary, her sometimes brutal treatment of those dropped from office once she became Prime Minister, and other factors like the behaviour of some of her former advisers have all contributed to her having some firm enemies. All politicians have them, but that doesn’t make them any less of a threat if they happened to pick the right moment.
- Remainers (in the view of Leavers). It’s no secret that a rump of Conservative MPs deeply oppose the Government’s Brexit policy, and are in some cases willing to cause however much trouble for their Party as is required to prevent it. Under the right circumstances, that could extend up to and including unseating the Prime Minister. However, Leaver fears about the influence of such people are sometimes prone to run well beyond the reality – and the remaining Remainer MPs are, for obvious reasons, wary of getting the blame for further infighting or even the nightmare of a Corbyn government.
- Leavers (in the view of Remainers). If pro-EU Conservative MPs are still learning the ropes of dedicated rebellion, the Eurosceptic wing of the Party has far more experience in the art. No-one has forgotten the dark days of the 1990s, and now the prize – securing a hard-fought escape from the EU at long last – is even greater than it was back when the Maastricht rebels fought the Major Government to a standstill. Many Leaver MPs are undoubtedly concerned about the possibility that the Prime Minister might endanger, not deliver, Brexit. But, as with the Remainers, it is possible for their opponents to exaggerate the degree to which they are agitating – yet, at least. They certainly appear to have reined in some of their rhetoric in recent days as the situation threatened to get out of hand.
- The media. Leaving aside concern for one cause or another, the other group with more than a passing interest in a leadership battle is of course the journalists. Why? It’s simply good for business – interesting, personal, chaotic and unpredictable is what gets people clicking and buying. They aren’t able to conjure stories out of thin air (mostly), but when any of the preceding four groups generate an opportunity to hype up the danger in breathless headlines, you can be sure there will be an eager market for it. That’s their job, of course, but that doesn’t change the fact they are an interested actor which can drive, rather than simply reflect, events.