Conservative MPs have had enough. Nearly all do not believe that Theresa May can lead them into the next election – or at least that’s the impression one gets from talking to as many as possible. But most think that her departure from Downing Street now would spark a leadership election that would probably be bloody and divisive, and would certainly return a new leader to a unchanged Commons. May’s successor would thus have no more authority than May herself. Indeed, he or she would arguably have less, having not even led the Conservatives through an election campaign in which they at least emerged as the largest party. In these circumstances, a general election could edge closer, whatever the Fixed Terms Parliament Act may say. And those Tory MPs want to avoid one. They are nervous for their seats, some of which might be lost, and apprehensive for the country, which could well believe that such a discredited and demoralised Conservative Party was no longer fit for office.
Many of them thus want the Prime Minister to speak out against the minority among their colleagues who are pushing potential successors, and some would like to see Cabinet Ministers fired for briefing, plotting or both. May will speak out when the Cabinet meets this morning…the proceedings of which will doubtless be leaked by the end the week. Which should return us to where we started. The Prime Minister lacks the command to sack a senior Cabinet Minister – as her cautious post-election reshuffle showed. To do so might unloose the stone that would bury her in an avalanche. Ministers are not going to stop briefing journalists about what happens at the top of government, and journalists are not going to stop asking questions about it. We are where we are – until or unless the Government can tell a Brexit story that offers voters material benefits. Mark Wallace points a way this morning.
All this will doubtless encourage the plotters to carry on scheming their schemes – largely on behalf of leading members of the Cabinet, such as David Davis, Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond. But if a sense of duty to government and party won’t stop them, perhaps the interest of the candidate they favour will. There is already a sense among some Tory MPs that the present generation of Parliamentary leaders has screwed up – and, furthermore, that its leading members are too associated with one side or another of the Brexit debate. It was echoed by ConservativeHome’s last monthly survey, which had as its top choice for next Party leader…none of the above. The plotters risk digging a pit that they will fall into themselves – or, rather, that their favourites will. But that would nonetheless mean no Cabinet seats or Ministerial posts for them either.
There will be a case for Davis, when the time comes, as the man best placed to hold the Party together – and as a strong and intelligent choice. But would it be realistic to put in place a leader who would be over 70 by the same of the next election, and could he create a winning electoral coalition? There will also be one for Johnson as the Tories’ most potent game-changer at a time when they need to change their game. But is he too marmite for the taste of much of the country, and would he provide coherent, effective government as Prime Minister? Neither shows any sign of wanting to move into Number Ten now, and their more enthusiastic backers seem to be acting freelance. But the latter should clock the mood among recent intakes of Conservatives MPs – those who have arrived since 2010 now make up more than half the Parliamentary Party – for someone new.
This person would appeal both in Remain-backing, migration-easy London and in the Leave-supporting, immigration-resistant midlands and north. He or she would have all the media-savvy of the professional politician while also being a complete outsider. He would be at ease with modern Britain while being convinced of Tory truths. He would have experience of business and a feel for the public sector, or vice-versa. There would be nothing in his back story colourful enough to interest the proprietor of this website in a biography. He might be gay. And Christian. Or Muslim. But he wouldn’t make a big deal of it. He would get matey with May and chummy with Cameron. He would be ruggedly metrosexual. He would not be an Old Etonian. Probably. Finally, he should be able to outmanoeuvre all those ambitious thrusters currently eyeing their chances. We should add that to the best of our knowledge this paragon does not exist.