Turn your imagination on its head for a moment, and pretend to be a member of Team May – one of her inner circle of Downing Street advisers and supporters. You are one of the few people that she sees daily. And you have no incentive to see her go: after all, keeping your job is dependent on the Prime Minister keeping hers. How might you try to persuade a wavering member of the 1922 Committee’s Executive that she should stay?
Your starting-point would presumably be not to suggest so directly – not in the wake of last week’s dreadful local elections; the coming disaster of the Euro-poll; reliance on a Marxist who leads an institutionally anti-semitic party, your confidence and supply partner alienated, and voluntary party members due to meet – unprecedentedly – to debate no confidence in your future.
Instead, you would play on the fears of those opposed to May’s most likely successors (as we write) – Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab. Most pro-Remain and pro-Soft Brexit Conservative MPs have no confidence in the Prime Minister. But most do not want to see her gone if her replacement is either of those gentlemen.
Next, you would exploit the natural reluctance of Tory MPs to contemplate another general election, after the setback of 2017. You would point out that changing a leader doesn’t change the Parliamentary arithmetic. Better instead to carry on, you might suggest, and hope for the best. Maybe Labour will back the Prime Minister’s present customs plan. Or the “Spartans” will suddenly lay down their spears, and mass behind her deal. Or…
At this point, your words would trail away, because they leave your argument with nowhere to go – other than towards the likely drift of the Commons towards a second referendum, a death-spiral of trust in the political class, and the future marginalisation of the Conservatives as a governing force.
It follows that those executive members should look that prospect in the eye when they meet today. If they want a Party that bumps along in the low opinion poll 30s (or lower), a Euro-elections massacre, no activist force to move into marginal seats, Nigel Farage rampant, no Commons majority (even now) and Corbyn to keep the initiative…then they should stick with May.
If instead, however, they want to break free from this trap, they should change the ’22’s leadership challenge rules to allow more frequent challenges, but with a higher threshold – say, 40 per cent. That would strike roughly the right balance between stability and flexibility. Any leader who can’t command the support of two-fifths of the Parliamentary Party is a goner in any event, or should be.
A new Tory leader and a likely election within six months offer no guaranteed escape from the Party’s present plight. But the choice now is between the lesser of two evils. A Prime Minister Johnson or Raab or Gove or Hunt or Javid would at least offer change – and if there is no change there will be, as the old saying has it, no chance.
Those Number Ten advisers will continue to dream of a miracle comeback. Perhaps, they will think to themselves, May can survive until the summer. And then until Party Conference. And then a challenge will, as so often in the past, fail to materialise…
In their imaginations, they will dream of the Conservatives as the Liverpool of politics – coming back from three-nil down, under May’s leadership, to score four goals and win.
Reality is bleaker. If May is allowed to carry on into the autumn, the Party could follow the path not of Liverpool, but of Notts County – previously the oldest team in the Football League, just as the Tories are the oldest party; a great and venerable name, now relegated out of league football altogether.