Can Theresa May survive a leadership challenge?

As her cabinet collapses around her, what next for the Prime Minister? 


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As Theresa May’s cabinet collapses around her, Downing Street is being drawn on very little. They have, however, confirmed two things: that the Prime Minister will stick to the Brexit proposals agreed at Chequers despite the resignations of Boris Johnson and David Davis, and that she will fight any motion of no confidence tabled by her MPs.

Her intention to do the first increases the likelihood of the second. If May doesn’t move on Brexit, a critical mass of her Eurosceptic backbenchers could yet try and move her instead. As far as this group is concerned, the answer to life, the universe and everything isn’t 42 but 48 – the number of letters to 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady required to trigger a confidence vote.

It looks increasingly likely that the resignations of the Brexit and foreign secretaries could push the tally above the threshold, which amounts to 15 per cent of Tory MPs. Davis, however, has declined to be the standard-bearer for a putsch, while Steve Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the past and present chairs of the European Research Group – Leave’s paramilitary faction – have denied they want to oust May, or that they are organising to do so.

Inchoate anger among their wing of the party is nonetheless curdling into outright mutiny. Several backbenchers have called explicitly for May to go, and many more are making implicit threats. If the Prime Minister makes good on her promise to fight on, and fight to win, would she?

Some Brexiteer rebels, like Andrea Jenkyns, claim the Prime Minister would be fatally weakened by a confidence vote even if she won it. Here their logic is characteristically shonky. Losing her parliamentary majority last year did not turn out to fatally weaken May, and the consensus among Tory MPs of all ideological stripes is that she would indeed win, and with relative ease.

The difference in tone between the Eurosceptic generals and their foot soldiers exposes why: those who want May gone would not even command a majority among pro-Brexit MPs, let alone the parliamentary party as a whole (rousing cheers for the Prime Minister as she entered the Commons today underlines surprisingly high levels of residual support).

Triggering a confidence ballot would also drastically restrict the means by which they could destabilise May. The reward for her victory would be a year’s immunity from further challenge and an effective mandate for the Chequers plan. For the rebels, their only remaining recourse to ousting May would be the kamikaze option of voting against the final Brexit deal.

Some would doubtless be willing to. But then the political pain would be of an entirely different order. And above all else, the hard Brexiteers are still afflicted by the underlying weaknesses that have always hindered their abortive attempts to recast the government in their own image – there is no majority within the Conservative party for their dogmatic vision of Brexit. If they are to oust the prime minister or force her to renounce the Chequers plan, they will have to leverage their hold on the balance of power across the Commons as a whole much more effectively.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.