It would be easy to say, as others have done this week, that Theresa May should resign – or else be forced out now. The reasons all but write themselves and need no repetition. But since she seems unwilling to go, what would follow an attempt to remove her?
The first thought to ponder is that it might not be successful. Conservative MPs are indeed “the most sophisticated” – i.e: unreliable – “electorate in the world”, but most still oppose forcing out the Prime Minister. They fear that such drastic action would destablise the Government majority in the Commons. They are alarmed by the possibility of an early election, against which the Fixed Terms Parliament Act is no sure protection, and Jeremy Corbyn coming to power. Those in marginal seats are especially risk-averse.
So all a no confidence vote might achieve is to leave an even weaker May still in place. That is neither in the national interest nor the Tory interest nor anyone else’s either, except Corbyn’s and Labour’s and Momentum’s. Furthemore, we can be sure that not all those who sign no confidence letters would say that they have done so. This would not improve confidence in the character of Tory MPs. Nor would the near certainty that the number of votes cast against her would exceed the number of publicly declared opponents.
When John Major was challenged for the Conservative leadership in 1995, backers of Michael Portillo installed extra phone lines, in order to prepare for a leadership bid (which didn’t come). We can be sure that friends of Boris Johnson and Amber Rudd and perhaps Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt would follow that example. That would further rock the frail Tory boat. And there are more would-be leaders in the making – many more. Some have real merit; others are House of Cards-type fantasists. Several would declare themselves, or be outed, before finding no takers and withdrawing. This would do little for Conservative coherence either.
But now go on to ask what would follow May actually losing a no confidence vote, or being forced out despite winning one, much as Margaret Thatcher was when she gained more votes than Michael Heseltine. There would be talk among Tory MPs in these circumstances of a “coronation”. There can be none, first, because there is no crown prince (or princess) and, second, because party members cannot be locked out of the next vote as they were the last one – or shouldn’t be, at any rate. The Prime Minister has not turned out to be a good advertisment for uncontested leadership elections.
There is also the prospect of the members, and arguably the country, not getting the choice they want. The Cabinet member with the biggest name recognition is Boris Johnson. But Tory MPs might well not forward his candidacy to the members. The same applies to Michael Gove, were he to stand in such circumstances. Ruth Davidson is ineligible. Jacob Rees-Mogg dismisses his own candidacy with shrewd insight. David Davis will be the best part of 75 in 2022. There are few other heavyweights. The prospect would be of a final choice between what voters and many party members would dismiss as two nonentities.
The last man left alive amidst the heaped corpses on this Hamlet-style stage might well be left with even less authority than May herself. And all this would take place against the backdrop of the biggest international negotiation in our post-war history. Tory MPs would be panned for playing pathetic Westminster games – for self-indulgence, panic and ungrownupness – while the future of the nation hangs in the balance. That might push and keep the Conservative poll rating down below 40 per cent, just in time for the spring’s local elections. In addition, Brandon Lewis claims that the Party has no complete list of members. Prepare for legal challenges in such circumstances.
So far, so plausible. But what’s likely isn’t certain, and patience sometimes run out anyway. Some Tory MPs and party members will continue to ask: could some other leader not do better – even given the lack of a majority? It is possible that some incident, or some combination of accidents, will trigger a challenge. One could be the Prime Minister’s unwillingness to discuss and decide the Government’s negotiating position. The reshuffle has further drained her authority. Hence yesterday’s bid by Philip Hammond for the Norway-type deal that May rejected as early as October last year. We will return to that matter later today.
Or a clash of some kind with a Cabinet member could spark a ballot. After all, each now knows, following Jeremy Hunt’s refusal to move from Health, that the Prime Minister has lost her grip on the top team. Or the cause might be the sense in the Parliamentary Party, particularly among the pre-2015 men who make up its majority, that they are not valued by Downing Street. Many of them may indeed be stale as well as male. But it is tactless of Number Ten to more or less say so in terms.
Culture wars have come to the Tory backbenches. One day, you can refer yourself to the police; soon after, you can find yourself Deputy Chief Whip. Or you can be referred retrospectively for disciplinary proceedings, like Stephen Crabb or Daniel Kawczynski. Or suspended without being told why, like Charlie Elphicke. Or find yourself suddenly in the public eye, like Nadhim Zahawi, for being at the wrong dinner at the wrong time. None of this makes for stability.
In order to help resolve it, May has been offered a mass of advice, on this site and elsewhere – to make Michael Gove Chancellor; to make a case for the social market, as Corbyn makes the case for the socialist state; to give Gavin Barwell, who is trying to do three jobs at once, more support; to raise defence spending; to set up a commission on social care; to concentrate more time and energy on matters close to most voters, like the cost of living, and a bit less on those more remote, like the environment.
For better or worse, there is no sign that she will take any of it. But she could ease the pressure on her by returning to one commitment that she has already made. “I’ve been stuffing envelopes since I was 12 years old,” she told the 1922 Committee immediately after the last election, “and I will continue to serve as long as you want me.” That opened the door to her stepping down before the next election, as half the respondents to this site’s monthly survey consistently want her to do.
She had since closed it. That was a mistake. Were it to be made clear that she is not set on leading the party into a 2022 poll, the pressures on her from her colleagues would ease. The Government could then clamber back on its feet. Most Tory MPs are not champing at the bit to force her out now. But nor do they believe that she can win a big majority at an election. To be sure, it is usually a bad thing for Prime Ministers to pre-announce their departure. It weakened David Cameron’s authority when he did so before the 2015 election.
But May has – to be brutal – little authority anyway. She could plausibly say that her great task now is to deliver a Brexit deal before March 2019. That date, or the end of a two-year transition period, would mark a natural cut-off point.