- On April 12, Britain is due to move out of a short extension either into No Deal (which is unlikely) or a long extension (which is likely). In the latter event, Theresa May should stand down on that date as Conservative leader, but stay on temporarily as Prime Minister. This would allow the Party to hold a leadership election with both Parliamentary and membership stages, which would be impracticable before mid-April. The new leader would then succeed May as Prime Minister in, say, mid-June.
- If May gives such a commitment to her Cabinet on Monday, and makes it public later that day, her deal stands a better chance of being approved by the Commons this week. But endorsement would still be far from certain. Such a pledge might not persuade the DUP to back it. And even if it did, the “Spartans” will hold out. If Opposition MPs hold fast too, the agreement will still go down. Whatever you view of the deal, this is worth bearing in mind.
- Now suppose that May instead agrees to quit immediately. Today’s papers are full of the names of potential successors as Prime Minister, including David Lidington, Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt. How would a handover work? Is it suggested that May stay as Party leader until after a post-April 12 leadership election – thereby allowing a replacement, temporary Prime Minister to serve until that contest produced a new leader, presumably at some point in early-to-mid June?
- If so, would a new Prime Minister be prepared to take office under that constraint? Is Hunt, Gove, Lidington or anyone else really prepared to serve in office for less than twelve weeks? If not, is it proposed that the person who might lead the Party into the next election is selected unopposed? We name 19 potential leadership contenders in our regularly monthly Next Tory Leader survey question. There are doubtless others. Is it seriously suggested that all but one would be prepared to stand aside?
- Next, Conservative MPs. Would they, too, be able to rally round one person? Consider the names most in the frame. Lidington would be unacceptable to most hard Brexiteers. Boris Johnson unacceptable to many softer ones. Gove and Hunt would be in danger of falling between two stools. Too pro-hard Brexit; too pro-Soft Brexit; pro-Remain; unpopular with members; unpopular with voters; too tained, too fresh – the objections to any aspirant are legion. What is meant to bring clarity would breed confusion.
- Next, Party members. May was elected unopposed after Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the last contest (in effect). Her leadership is not ending well. Why should activists want to see her successor appointed – “crowned”, as Tory MPs like to say – rather than elected? If it didn’t work out last time, why would it do so this time? Would such an outcome even be legal under the terms of the Party’s constitution? Above all: what difference to Brexit policy would this new leader make? Or to numbers in the Commons?
- Next, the Palace. Monarchs like coronations – but why should the Queen assent to this one? She might well say to a departing May: “Now, look here. You tell me that your Parliamentary Party will accept Mr Lidington as your successor. But I read gather that some Tory MPs will not support him. Why shouldn’t I send for Jeremy Corbyn instead?” The Queen has steered clear of party political controversy for the length of her distinguished reign. Why should she now be dumped right in the midst of one?
- Finally, May herself. What if she simply refuses to go? She cannot be challenged in a leadership ballot until the autumn. Both the 1922 Committee and the whips have pointed her towards the door. As we write, she is declining to walk towards it. If her Cabinet unanimously advises her to quit – and we’ll believe that when we see it – she might be left with no alternative. But until or unless that happens (or Philip May steps in), she will be hard to winkle out.
- This site is not set on keeping May in office. We urged change during December’s leadership challenge. As we say, we want her to pledge to quit as Party leader, and to depart on April 12 – paving the way for a full leadership contest. Conservative MPs have had enough of her, too. No group or faction trusts her. She has lost the confidence of her Cabinet and whips. Her disastrously misconceived attack on her own MPs appears to have sealed her fate.
- None the less, our message to them this morning is: be careful what you wish for. A post-April 12 Prime Ministerial departure works. A pre-April 12 one doesn’t. The Conservative Party is like a man stuck in a swamp. If he keeps his head, he can work his way out of it. If he loses it, he will be sucked into the depths. Lidington Now, Gove Now, Hunt Now, Anyone Now – to attempt anything like this is to flail and thrash about. It will only drag the Government deeper into the swamp which threatens to drown it.
Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Lidington gives the impression that on Brexit the Government is becalmed
Exclusive. CCHQ has been notified that the threshold for a voluntary party confidence vote in May’s leadership has been reached.
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