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31 August 2017

Conservative MPs can’t stand Theresa May but they don’t want her to fail

Tory MPs aren't worried that they won't be able to get rid of May. They are worried about what comes after. 

By Stephen Bush

One of the reasons that Theresa May called the general election early was that she didn’t want to solely be remembered as the Prime Minister who delivered Brexit: so, mission accomplished.

The difficulty is that the PM wanted a big majority to allow her to pursue her programme without further dilution of her policy platform. Now, of course, she doesn’t have that, and as it stands, she has a choice of two unlovely legacies: the first is, if the Conservatives go onto win, as the leader who botched a winnable election. The second, if Labour prevail at the next election, is as merely part of the long interim between the eras of Cameron and Corbyn.

Her declaration that she hopes to fight another election is an illustration of how she ended up here. The question is of her future is a risky one, yes: May doesn’t want to advertise her impermanence, nor does she want to be drawn into speculation about her successor.

But there was an answer readily available: that right now she is focused on delivering the best possible Brexit and an economy that works for everyone. Yes, the answer is a little rote and robotic, but it’s Theresa May after all. (Or, alternatively, she could chuck a grenade at Labour’s older leader and quip that it would be hard to do the job past 65,  the age May will reach at the next election.) That she instead announced she will carry on and fight the 2022 election attests to her flat-footedness, which helped get her in this mess in the first place.

Although Conservative MPs have no intention of letting May fight another election, her declaration that she will hopes to fight the 2022 election is, for the most part, being greeted with derision rather than dismay. In the main, Tory backbenchers are no more forming an opinion on it than Gareth Southgate is on my ambition to play up front for England at the next World Cup.

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But it reveals their problem: the reason May is still there is that most MPs look at the choices at the top of the Cabinet and are even more depressed by the PM’s possible replacements than the PM herself.

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That’s why May might, for all her weakness, be able to carry through a reshuffle that promoted the young and the talented in order to freshen up the menu of possible replacements. But that’s the biggest and so far unnoticed problem: May’s interests and the Conservative party’s don’t entirely reconcile.

It’s in the Conservative Party’s interests for May to refresh the top team around her so once the Brexit negotiations are over they can pick an alternative. But it’s in May’s interest for things to stay as they are: because it means there is just a teeny, tiny chance that if she can indeed make a success of Brexit and if the alternatives are still uninspiring, she might hang on long enough to carve out a different legacy.