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10 July 2017

Theresa May’s biggest asset? Her party doesn’t have many other options

Could David Davis really be the solution to the Conservatives' problems?

By Stephen Bush

She’s just a girl, standing in front of a parliament, asking them not to defeat her. That’s the précis of the speech that Theresa May will deliver tomorrow as she seeks to relaunch her troubled premiership.

She will call on MPs from the opposition parties to “come forward with your own views and ideas about how we can tackle these challenges as a country”, or, in other words, she will say: “I haven’t a hope in hell of passing this with only my own MPs. Let’s talk amendments for votes!” Or, as the Telegraph puts it: “May’s cry for help to Corbyn”.  (Other variations on that theme: the Guardian goes for “May appeals to Labour for policy ideas” while “Weakened May pleads for support from rivals” is the Times‘ splash.)  

Political decay is rather like tooth decay – it makes it hard to focus on what the speaker is saying, and today’s papers are having the same difficulty. Talk of a change at the top dominates most of the coverage of tomorrow’s speech.

May’s biggest asset is despite everything it is not immediately clear that the Conservatives’ alternate options are that much better. They came unstuck at the election because they went backwards with ethnic minorities, social liberals and women. Is that a problem to which David Davis is the solution?

But the mood is febrile and at any time things could come to a head. May is staring down the possibility of more Commons defeats as the Repeal Bill comes to parliament. The biggest source of unease? Britain’s membership of Euratom.

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The magic number of course is seven – Conservative MPs who agree with the opposition and are willing to vote against the whip. There are seven MPs who have already gone public calling for a finessing of the PM’s ECJ red line which would allow the court to continue to have jurisdiction on matters such as research, flights and nuclear exchange, where Britain will continue to have a direct relationship with the European Union. One Conservative MP put it like this: on Euratom it’s not a matter of if Downing Street backs down, but how much damage they suffer before they back down.

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But if you imagine a world without Theresa May in Downing Street, again, the Conservative problem doesn’t really change, though of course they may benefit from a change in mood. They still have a fragile presence in the House of Commons and a parliamentary party that is too intellectually heterodox to pass big legislation with the support of the DUP alone.

That speaks to the real appeal of David Davis in SW1: not so much because of his ability to turn back the Corbyn tide, but because he has the credibility among Leavers to sell the concessions that the new parliamentary arithmetic forces.