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1 February 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:40am

Every day, Conservative MPs inch closer to telling their weak and failing leader her time is up

Brexit points a dagger at the Conservatives that only a leader of above May’s ability can deflect

By Simon Heffer

Since last June most Tories have assumed that a moment would come, before the next election, when Theresa May would realise she had delighted her public long enough and would vacate Downing Street.

Pandering to the obsession over Brexit, the party generally expected that moment to arrive soon after 29 March 2019, the date the United Kingdom is supposed to leave the EU. But lately, matters have seemed less certain. Theresa May’s fate has become a matter of increments, rather than hingeing upon a specific event or yet another debacle.

The talk around Westminster is that every day another MP (or perhaps even two or three) moves closer to the point where writing a letter to Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, to demand a vote of confidence in May becomes a strong possibility. Here and there, that possibility translates into action. Brady tells no one how many letters he has – he needs 48 to call a contest. Whispers among colleagues have fed the belief that the number has passed 40, and for all anyone (apart, perhaps, from Brady himself) knows it might even have reached the magic number by the time you read this.

Why might this point have come now? As I wrote here a fortnight ago, last month’s reshuffle came to be seen not just as a wasted opportunity to redirect an underperforming government, but as conclusive proof that May lacked leadership skills. It brought to a head another concern, bubbling since the shambles of the election, which – to put it bluntly – was May’s complete failure to make her party engage in politics.

At a dinner for donors last week, a loyalist who tried to defend her leadership abilities was laughed down. Tory MPs see a divided and compromised Labour Party, with a leadership that asks to be attacked and policies even some of its MPs find hard to endorse, and they wonder why May is not setting the dogs on them. It was this, rather than divisions over Brexit, that caused this possibly terminal upsurge of anger against May. When highly regarded former minister Nicholas Soames, who has in a 35-year Commons career maintained an iron devotion to the party line, feels compelled to write a tweet describing his party’s programme as “dull, dull, dull”, the game is up.

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Soames is typical of the calibre of MP refusing to tolerate the lack of ambition with which his party is being managed. The critics of May’s style – if how she conducts business can be dignified with that phrase – are mainly older MPs, many of whom have held office, with experience of what competent government looks like. The current leadership is held in even greater contempt in the House of Lords, where men who sat in the Heath and Thatcher administrations say that in more than 40 years in politics they have never seen anything so dire in terms of running a government. But it is in the House of  Commons where the power lies to bring May down, and those convinced it will not be deployed are mainly novices, or nursing their first government job.

Brexit, inevitably, plays a part, with pro-Leave MPs who used to trust May as their best bet to oversee the process now regarding her as incapable of managing it. Chancellor Philip Hammond’s disdain for the agreed line at Davos – he said Brexit would involve “very modest” changes – exposed May’s weakness: not because she did not sack him, but because he felt able to mock her and her line in the first place.

But the real anger over Brexit has festered since before Christmas. Brexiteers were aghast at how Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, was allowed to hand over to Ireland the decision on whether negotiations could proceed to the next stage without a British protest, let alone a British initiative. Now, just when Conservative MPs think May should be stating British terms, they see her, as usual, allowing Brussels to dictate them. Each day, Tory Remainers are becoming more outnumbered by those who, angered by May’s trepidation, want Brussels reminded that Britain can, if necessary, just leave.

Those of us old enough to remember the fall of Margaret Thatcher recall how that process was achieved through relentless momentum over many months among those who had had enough, however much one speech by Geoffrey Howe is deemed to have sealed her fate. Even MPs who don’t want a contest accept an early one is far more likely than it seemed a month ago – they speculate about how, if matters proceed like this, May might not last another month – and no one thinks there would be a shortage of candidates.

Ministers who talk about the possibility of a vote of confidence believe there is no question of May not fighting it; but they believe equally she would not secure the support of all the cabinet, let alone all the government, and that if she won a majority it would be insufficient to allow her to stay in office (as, effectively, was the case with Thatcher under different rules in 1990).

The Tory party does not – yet – face an existential threat, but Brexit points a dagger at its heart that only a leader of above May’s ability can deflect. Oddly enough, awareness of this unites Brexiteers with Remainers, in their common desire to hold their seats at the next election, once Brexit is history. It is ironic that May seems unable to engage in this urge to make common cause against Labour, given that it ought to be her and her party’s core purpose. Too many of her colleagues have given up pretending this failure to participate in politics doesn’t matter, for they know more clearly each day that nothing matters more. At some stage the party that has forgotten how to lead will have to execute an act of leadership; but it is unlikely to be performed by May. 

Simon Heffer writes for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph

This article appears in the 31 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration