Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
Brace yourselves. We are in for what the Americans call a shellacking. Many blameless council candidates will lose tomorrow for no other reason than the blue on their rosettes. Some experts talk of 500 Conservative councillors mown down, others of 800, others of more. I am mildly more optimistic. If my canvassing in Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire is anything to go by, there are still voters out there who care about the quality of local services. But I’m not going to deny that, even in a relatively benign scenario, we are going to take one hell of a beating.
And then? I have a horrible vision of the Prime Minister responding to the defeat by making one of those statements at her lectern. “I have listened. I have heard what people want. And what people are asking for, up and down the country, is for Parliament to pass my Withdrawal Agreement…”
That’s when the tailspin could begin. In local elections, you can still find people whose vote will be determined by their council’s record on potholes or by the amount of tax it charges. But in European elections?
I made the case for voting Conservative in this column on this site two weeks ago. We need to finish the job. We need to leave the EU in an orderly, cordial and grown-up way. We need to ensure that Jeremy Corbyn does not trampoline from these elections to a general election victory. We need to ensure that Britain continues to thrive as it has done since the referendum, with a record number of people in work and the deficit back to pre-Gordon Brown levels.
But I’m well aware, as I write these things, that many ConervativeHome readers are in no mood to hear them. Several times over the past two weeks, when out with local activists, I have had variants of the following conversation.
“You standing again, Dan?”
“Yep. You voting for me?”
“Well, if it was you, I would, but I can’t bring myself to endorse Theresa May.”
“But it is me. I mean, I’m literally your candidate.”
“Yeah, but you take my point”.
I do. If the Prime Minister were to announce her departure immediately after the local elections, Armaggedon would be averted. We wouldn’t need to have a new party leader in place by 23 May: the fact of a leadership contest being underway would be enough.
I am sorry to be so blunt, but this is now all about timing. Everyone agrees that May must soon step down – including, at least in theory, May herself. The only differences are over timing. Some of the Prime Minister’s supporters imagine her making a dignified farewell speech at the October party conference and then overseeing a leadership contest. Others – especially those backing her various putative successors – hope that she will, as it were, soak up the damage of the European election defeat and then allow an unsullied new leader to take over in June.
Sheesh, guys, there may well be nothing to take over by then. If our party slips into single figures in a national election, its position could become irrecoverable. Those MPs who are gaming the May’s departure date with the succession in mind are taking an unconscionable risk. Why assume that, after a meltdown on the scale that we face, there will be anything left to inherit? As for the idea that our volunteers might give the Prime Minister a warm send-off after watching the needless evisceration of a 200-year-old party, forget it. Already, the Association Chairmen have called an extraordinary meeting for the sole purpose of demanding that the leader stand down.
Like most Conservatives, I barely know May. But I have observed one thing over the 20 years that she has been an MP in my region. She sees herself as a product and champion of the voluntary party. She is visibly relaxed and happy when canvassing at local elections, and has, to her credit, carried on doing so since becoming Prime Minister.
Rather than suffer the indignity of becoming the only Conservative leader to be no-confidenced by party members, I hope she will see that she can salvage her reputation by leaving before the European elections. Staying on would be a tragedy for her, ensuring that her premiership ended in bitterness and recriminations. It would be a tragedy for the Conservative Party, which could very well cease to be viable as a party of government. And, because it would hand power to Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell (who on Monday was delightedly promising a socialist revolution), it would be a tragedy for Britain.