Theresa May has been kept in place since the last election, first, by the view that to change Prime Minister during the Brexit talks would stop the negotiation, and that it would not re-start in time for a deal; second, by the lack of an agreed successor and, third, by the absence of an alternative plan. All these factors seem close to collapse. Some Conservative MPs now believe that, with the talks apparently stuck over the backstop and the rejection of Chequers in Salzburg last month, the negotiation has effectively broken down anyway – and that claims that May will be rescued by Angela Merkel and other EU27 leaders are just so much whistling in the dark.
There is also an alternative plan – Canada Plus Plus Plus or, for those concerned that we might not have such a deal agreed by the end of transition, or who want no transition at all, the Norway-to-Canada scheme. And now there is also an alternative leader. The Prime Minister, we have been reading for a week, should be replaced by David Davis. He could complete the negotiation, serve in Downing Street for a year, and then push off with the thanks of a grateful nation.
This might be acceptable to the young turks who want generational change at the top, since the near-70-year-old Davis would not stay in Downing Street for very long – and even, perhaps, to such middle-aged turks as Boris Johnson. Davis would stand; other candidates would withdraw; he would thus be “crowned”. And at his third attempt, Davis would duly become Conservative leader: not so much the Comeback Kid as the Comeback Oldie.
So say “friends” – or “allies”, if you prefer another Fleet Street term. So, yes, there is a possible alternative leader who might command assent. And, yes, he has been studying Norway-to-Canada, and mulling its strengths and weaknesses. Now, there is a case for Davis and a case against him, as there is for many things. But before debating it back and forth, it’s necessary to ask: does he actually back this scheme in the first place?
Davis distrusts coronations – of the Conservative kind, that is. There is irony in that fact, since he is the only serving Tory politician who has guaranteed one, withdrawing in 2003 in favour of Michael Howard. But he recognises that a Conservative leader needs to command the Party; that authority usually flows from winning a leadership election, fair and square, and that May’s leadership would have been been acquired an extra layer of legitimacy had the contest she won in 2016 gone to the membership stage.
Furthermore, the prospect of an uncontested poll looks like a Westminster fantasy. Why should a Sajid Javid or a Penny Mordaunt – to name only two Cabinet members who might be put by their colleagues before party members – not seize their moment to win the leadership, rather than risk it fading away? Either of them – let alone Johnson – might fancy a smash-and-grab raid on it. That, after all, was what David Cameron launched in 2005. The man he beat was Davis.
Next, remember the condition of the Commons. Tory MPs can change their leader, but they can’t change the numbers. The Conservatives have no majority. A new leader would risk emerging from a bloody leadership poll with party unity even weaker than before. The logic of a leadership election points to a general election sooner rather than later, to give our imaginary new leader the prospect of implementing his or her new plan, rather than see it stuck in a chamber in which there may be no majority for any plan at all.
And Tory MPs, especially those in marginal seats, are petrified of a poll. Another candidate might soft-soap them, promising not to call one, if he or she wins. Our best bet is that Davis wouldn’t. That would lower his vote, to put it mildly. Finally, has anyone asked him whether, having clambered to the top of the greasy pole at the third attempt, he would be willing to slide back down it after a mere twelve months or so? We doubt it.
Almost anything can happen in politics, of course. In Julius Caesar, the ruler after whom the play is named is offered the crown by Mark Anthony “and, as I told you, he put it by once—but, for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it. Then he offered it to him again, then he put it by again—but, to my thinking, he was very loath to lay his fingers off it. And then he offered it the third time. He put it the third time by.” In circumstances that we can’t see, maybe Davis would be less fastidious.
None the less, there is no evidence that the man himself is up for a coronation; that he thinks it likely that there would be one, anyway; that he would eschew seeking a general election as Prime Minister, to the horror of many of his colleagues and the depression of his potential vote; and that he would be willing to serve in Number Ten for a year or so only. One sometimes reaches an age or state where one wants something only on one’s own terms. David Lidington said of leadership plots last summer that his colleagues had been “drinking too much prosecco”. Autumn is here and the weather is cooler. But some of them, at least as far as this plan is concerned, are still knocking it back.