Why won't Conservative backbenchers just get rid of Theresa May?

MPs face a difficult choice between more Theresa May or permanently injecting further instability into the party.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Theresa May has survived, sort of. The backbench 1922 committee has drawn back from changing its rules to allow a second vote of confidence in May’s leadership within a year. As it stands, the Prime Minister cannot be challenged for the leadership until December of this year. But the Tory party can rewrite its rulebook at will, provided that a majority of the MPs on the 1922 committee agree to do so.

But they’ve opted not to do so – yet. May will instead have another meeting to discuss her future on Friday, after the European elections have passed, but before the results are known. (Counting will take place on Sunday evening, after everyone across the bloc has voted.)  

In practice, what is really taking place is simply haggling over the terms of May’s exit, and the important debate doesn’t even involve May. It is absolutely not about making it to Gordon Brown day – the date next week when she will overtake Brown as the United Kingdom’s 35th longest-serving Prime Minister – as she is guaranteed to exceed that date anyway as any leadership election will take her past that. (With a big field of candidates, she could well overhaul not just Brown but the Duke of Wellington and Neville Chamberlain into the bargain.)

In practice, Conservative MPs have three choices: change the rules to get rid of Theresa May early; wait for Theresa May’s immunity to expire and remove her in December; or persuade Theresa May to quit before her allotted expiry date. Very little of May’s career indicates that she will ever voluntarily resign.

But the great risk, as far as more cautious members of the 1922 committee are concerned, is that if you change the rules to oust May, it would permanently increase the level of instability within the party. As whoever replaces May will inherit the task of resolving Brexit and the finely balanced parliament that May’s bungled 2017 campaign produced, it adds a further degree of tension to an already fraught situation.

But if they don’t remove her before her scheduled immunity, it means another extension to the Brexit process, and further deepens the hole that her successor will have to climb out of.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.