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18 July 2017

Will feuding Tories try to unseat Theresa May over the summer recess?

This week might be remembered as the last time the Prime Minister had any real power at all.

By Stephen Bush

“A change of nuisances,” David Lloyd George once remarked, “is as good as a vacation.” That’s an opinion you’re unlikely to hear echoed in Downing Street now, where the healing powers of the summer recess have become almost an article of faith. Everything will be better once parliament rises and everyone’s had a break, or at least, that’s how the theory runs.

But a change of nuisance might turn out to be more restorative to Theresa May’s position than any mountain walk. I wrote yesterday that the most important Tory story was that the 1922 Committee was urging the PM to put a bit of stick about and sack ministers who rock the boat. The hostility towards the leakers has only grown over the last 24 hours, and forms the basis of today’s Times splash: “May urged to sack her ‘donkey’ ministers” is the headline. One MP quoted in the Times rails against the “safe seat kids” who are able to plot away, safe in the knowledge that any voter revolt won’t hit them in their constituencies.

One reason parties in power tend to stay there is that MPs in marginal seats often act as a ballast – both in backing up their leaders in punishing those who rock the boat, and in providing a connection to swing voters. One of the reasons David Cameron belatedly decided to sack Maria Miller – remember her? – was as a result of entreaties from the 2010 and 2015 intake.

Don’t forget that the bulk of the Conservative parliamentary party won their seats from Labour or the Liberal Democrats, rather than via succession. That’s one reason why May, who was too weak to sack ministers on 9 June, could get away with one or two choice dismissals if they are chosen well.

(The other reason – as well as to put an end to the damaging leaks – that some Tory MPs are keen on a few sackings is that they are unimpressed by the possible post-May options on offer, and hope that the new blood might be more dynamic and attractive than the current roster.)  

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But the difficulty is that while the majority of Conservative MPs are nervously looking over their shoulders at Labour or the Liberal Democrats, not all of them are. Today’s Guardian reports that some Tory MPs are still planning to try to unseat May over the summer.

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Her guarantors in marginal seats are, for the moment, shoring up her position. If they spend the summer getting an earful from their constituents about Tory infighting, that probably strengthens May to carry out an autumn reshuffle. If they spend their summer hearing about their PM’s unpopularity, however, this week might be remembered as the last time May had any real power at all.