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Theresa May's position is bad – but she could be around longer than everyone thinks

The Prime Minister is a sort of political zombie. And they are harder to kill than you'd think.

Is this death? Parliament returned from its autumn recess with Theresa May’s premiership reportedly in a state of considerable fragility. Forty Conservative MPs are “ready” to sign their letters of no confidence in her leadership – just eight short of the percentage required to trigger a vote of the entire parliamentary party.

Elsewhere, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have renewed their Brexit partnership and are using it to press the Prime Minister to make greater concessions to their particular vision of what leaving the European Union looks like. Philip Hammond’s next Budget on 22 November is being described as make or break for both him and the government as a whole.

Given there is no parliamentary majority for either further spending cuts or tax rises, it is difficult, to put it mildly, to see how the Budget will be anything other than a catastrophe for the government. And that’s before you get to the question of whether or not Damian Green will survive the investigation into his conduct.

May can’t go on like this, can she? Except… she almost certainly can. Forty MPs being “ready” to sign a letter of no confidence is some distance away from them actually doing it. It’s rather like being ready to give your boss a piece of your mind. You might say you will do it in a bar with some mates, but there is always an excuse not to the morning after.

Even should some event decisively tip enough MPs into signing those letters, May could still survive a vote of no confidence. Supporters of Amber Rudd and other Remain-backing candidates – a majority of the parliamentary Conservative Party – know that while Brexit remains at risk, they have no chance of winning over Conservative members.

They will stick with May until Brexit is done and dusted to maximise their chances of winning the throne thereafter. Brexit ultras have less to fear from an early leadership election but they aren’t on their own a large enough group to win a confidence vote. (And some of this group, however wrong they may be, fear that deposing May could lead to a softer Brexit.)

And regardless of how many ministers May loses as a result of allegations about their conduct, or how badly the Budget goes, that calculation won’t change until Brexit has been seen out – that is to say, until 30 March 2019. And she could even find that she might last longer than that if Brexit goes so badly that the prospect of succeeding her looks particularly unattractive. Which isn’t to say that she won’t decide that the whole thing isn’t worth the candle and resign of her own accord. But it is to say that May’s political position is more secure than it looks – and her chances of surviving not just this year but for the foreseeable future are small, but not non-existent.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Commons Confidential: Tories turn on “Lord Snooty”

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

With the Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary rapidly approaching, Jeremy Corbyn’s office is scrambling to devise a celebration that doesn’t include Tony Blair. Peace in Northern Ireland is a sparkling jewel in the former prime minister’s crown, perhaps the most precious legacy of the Blair era. But peace in Labour is more elusive. Comrade Corbyn’s plot to airbrush the previous party leader out of the picture is personal. Refusing to share a Brexit referendum platform with Blair and wishing to put him in the dock over Iraq were political. Northern Ireland is more intimate: Corbyn was pilloried for IRA talks and Blair threatened to withdraw the whip after the Islington North MP met Gerry Adams before the 1997 election. The Labour plan, by the way, is to keep the celebrations real – focusing on humble folk, not grandees such as Blair.

Beleaguered Tory Europeans call Brextremist backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg – the hard-line European Research Group’s even harder line no-dealer – “Lord Snooty” behind his back. The Edwardian poshie, who orchestrates Theresa May’s taxpayer-funded Militant Tendency (members of the Brexit party within a party are able to claim “research” fees on expenses), is beginning to grate. My irritated snout moaned that the Beano was more fun and twice as informative as the Tories’ own Lord Snooty.

Labour’s Brexit fissures are getting bigger but Remainers are also far from united. I’m told that Andy Slaughter MP is yet to forgive Chuka Umunna for an “ill-timed” pro-EU amendment to last June’s Queen’s Speech, which led to Slaughter’s sacking from the front bench for voting to stay in the single market. The word is that a looming customs union showdown could trigger more Labexits unless Jezza embraces tariff-free trade.

Cold war warriors encouraging a dodgy Czech spy to smear Comrade Corbyn couldn’t be further from the truth about his foreign adventures. In Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Corbyn recalled spending a night in Burundi pumping up footballs. The club offered to donate shirts for an aid trip but he asked for the balls to be shared by entire African villages. He was War on Want, not Kim Philby.

Screaming patriot Andrew Rosindell, the chairman of an obscure flags and heraldry committee, is to host a lecture in parliament on the Union Jack. I once witnessed the Romford Tory MP dress Buster, his bull terrier, in a flag waistcoat to greet Maggie Thatcher. She walked past without noticing.

A Tory MP mused that Iain Duncan Smith was nearly nicknamed “Smithy”, not “IDS”, for his 2001 leadership campaign. Smithy would still have proved a lousy commander.
 

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia