Nothing was concluded, but everything has changed. Admittedly, no firm date has been set for Theresa May’s departure as Party leader. We cannot even be certain that a Withdrawal Agreement Bill will be presented to Parliament, let alone that it will have its Second Reading soon after the Whitsun recess: after all, the Government has reneged on commitments to hold Brexit votes before.
But for the Prime Minister not to bring forward the Bill in June would provoke a further confrontation with the 1922 Committee’s Executive. Early June will see the aftermath of the European elections, and the Peterborough by-election: neither will soothe the nerves of Conservative MPs. For May to retreat from her commitment would be for her openly to defy the committee. It would have no alternative under such circumstances but to change the leadership challenge rules – if it wanted to maintain its credibility, at any rate. That would usher in a ballot which she would be very unlikely to survive.
Some will damn the Executive for indecision. And we would certainly have preferred the Prime Minister to go now as Party leader: the longer she stays in that post, the deeper the damage is to the Conservatives’ standing. There is a danger that the failure to deliver Brexit on March 29, as promised by her over a hundred times, and the taking-place of European elections instead – despite her calling their holding “unacceptable” – will so wreck the Party’s reputation for trustworthiness that her successor will be unable to recover it.
None the less, there is a certain rationale for the Executive’s modus operandi. It is undertaking a very Conservative coup, in which it gets what a majority on the committe want, but without the Prime Minister losing face in the process. First, Tory MPs wrung out of her a commitment to go if her deal passed. Then, earlier this week, Graham Brady and company effectively forced her to commit to bringing in the Withdrawal Bill. Now she faces the prospect of being forced out of Downing Street whether the Bill does or doesn’t succeed. Above all, she will want to avoid the public humiliation of the National Convention debating no confidence in her on June 15. One might almost say of the Executive, as of the Canadian mounties, that it always gets its man (or woman, in this case).
Please note that May’s opponents now have a very clear extra incentive to oppose it at Second Reading – since she would have no alternative in the wake of its defeat but to quit. The third Meaningful Vote whittled those opposed to her deal down to 34. But 117 of her colleagues expressed no confidence in her earlier this year. So the number of those Conservative MPs who vote against the Bill at Second Reading is likely to rise from the mid-30s. Labour may yet come to the Prime Minister’s rescue, but that is very doubtful indeed.
Whatever happens, May’s replacement needs time to settle down over the summer, get dug in, appoint Ministers, make some announcements and changes, and at least try to set the agenda before facing the Commons in the autumn. This will be impossible if the leadership election drags on throughout August into September. The ’22 has charge of the Parliamentary stage and the Board control of the membership stage. Sir Graham and his colleagues will want to get the first over as soon as possible. Sources in the voluntary party say that the second could be completed in “two to three weeks”.
All that points towards electing a new Party leader by the time the Commons rises at the end of July. The leadership election that returned David Cameron took over six months. Parties in opposition have the luxuxy of time. Parties in government don’t – especially this one.