Throughout the general election campaign, this site spoke to a lot of Conservative MPs. Since it ended, we have spoken to more. We have scarcely found a single one who believes that Theresa May can lead the Conservative Party into the next election and win it. The near-unanimous view is that she must go.
But while the end is undisputed, there is no agreement about the means, for two main reasons. First, any leadership election could end up looking like the last scene of Hamlet, but without the consoling presence of a Fortinbras waiting in the wings to clear up the bloody mess. There is no consensus on who might step in to succeed the Prime Minister. A leadership election would litter the Tory stage with corpses, with free marketeers turning on Mayite interventionists, friends of Lynton Crosby assailing allies of Nick Timothy, Leavers clamouring for a hard Brexit, Remainers called for a soft one, and George Osborne and the Cameroons piling in from the wings. The danger is that whoever emerged as May’s successor would do so with no authority either. An exultant Jeremy Corbyn would claim that the new Prime Minister had no mandate to govern. In such circumstances, a second election might hard to avoid. In any event, what if May refuses to step down voluntarily in the first place?
And while ConservativeHome can find no support for her continued premiership, it can find none for an early election either. Tory confidence is shattered. This is partly because there is now no trust in the manifesto that Timothy and Ben Gummer masterminded, the main measures of which cannot now be carried through the new Parliament. The social care proposals are dead. The programme of May’s putative partners, the Democratic Unionist Party, opposes her plan to end the pensions triple lock and means-test the winter fuel allowance. Above all, there is no mandate for the Government’s Brexit plan, or for anything else either. Just wait until rebellious Conservative MPs, all fear of the Prime Minister’s authority gone, get stuck into the Queen’s Speech.
The evil that the manifesto did lives after it. The good will be interred with its bones. You may agree or disagree with our view that, considered as a whole, it was a plan for grown-up government. But either way, voters rejected it. In its absence, they are about to find out what it is like to live with childish things. During the election, May and her team mocked Corbyn’s magic money tree. The result plants it smack in the middle of Westminster and Whitehall. Tory Ministers are now in charge of distributing its fruits to all comers.
There is another explanation of why Conservative MPs are terrified of another election soon. They have lost confidence in machine as well as manifesto. Without a replacement for Team 2015, the Party was short of boots on the ground, as the consequences of an ageing membership caught up with it. There was more trouble with VoteSource. Above all, the myth of Lynton Crosby and Jim Messina’s infallible research, social media campaigning and data has been exploded. Having had a big hand in the Remain campaign’s targeting, the latter met the same fate this time round. “Spent the day laughing at another stupid poll from YouGov,” he tweeted during the campaign. But the polling company’s new model was proved correct. Messina should do a Matthew Goodwin – and eat his tweet on live TV. As for Crosby, he seems to have been busy briefing to save his skin.
This takes us to the second main reason why many Tory MPs are reluctant to ask May to go now – or seek to force her out. A leadership election would apparently take the best part of eight weeks. Last time round, the Party Board actually settled on the best part of ten. How on earth could the Conservative Party conduct such a contest, with the Prime Minister presumably in place having resigned as Party leader, during the opening of the Brexit negotiations?
Perhaps these could be postponed. However, Brexiteering MPs would cut up rough over any attempt to do so, fearing a sellout. Some Tories will doubtless float “a coronation”, with the membership cut out of the decision. But we members had no say in May’s election, and that hasn’t turned out well. Arguably, it would have been better had her proposals for more council houses, an energy price cap, workers on boards and an industrial strategy been tested in the white heat of a full leadership election last summer. In any event, there is no agreed successor to anoint. David Davis doesn’t want the job. Boris Johnson’s supporters are on manoeuvres, but there is opposition to his candidacy. Some of the Remainers who voted for May now want her out as possible. Meanwhile, many of the Leavers who backed Andrea Leadsom want to keep the Prime Minister in place for the moment – in order to keep the Government’s Brexit plan on track. Oh, the irony!
Better by far, say the wise old owls, to hang on. An arrangement with the DUP would give the new Government a majority, they say. There is no prospect of a no confidence vote succeeding. And May can find shelter behind our old friend, the Fixed Terms Parliament Act. Maybe she should see the Brexit talks through, some muse, and then depart with the thanks of a grateful nation.
Perhaps the old birds are right. But this site is nagged by the uncomfortable feeling that they may be failing to see the wood for the trees. May won the biggest Tory share of the vote since Margaret Thatcher, but the landslide she anticipated did not take place. Voters seem to have mulled her refusal to level with them over social care, her reluctance to debate, her lack of ease with campaigning and engagement – and, having weighed her in the balance, found her wanting. It is not certain that she has the flexibility and adaptability to share power with her Cabinet and Party and Parliament, as she must now do to survive.
It is all very well to take refuge behind fixed terms plus hope in the DUP. David Cameron had a majority, and his government was crippled by rebellions. May was at mercy of the Commons even before the election: remember the Budget and national insurance? Conservative MPs may not yet have grasped that we face the possibility of five years of a Do Nothing Government – with all that this implies for the proper management of the country’s finances. On paper, such an administration may be able to stagger on – at the mercy of tide and chance, with a Party leader vulnerable at any moment to a leadership challenge via letters to Graham Brady. But in practice?
Finally, and perhaps most balefully, a handful of Tory dissidents may seek to sink the deal with the DUP: Ruth Davidson is unhappy about it, and she counts for quite a bit. We have no easy answers. Nor does anyone else. We must perhaps wait until the new Parliament meets before the next act in this drama unfolds. But whatever it may bring, Tory MPs cannot pretend that May can lead them into the next election. They don’t believe it. Nor do our readers. Nor now, reluctantly, do we.