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13 November 2017

Theresa May’s position is bad – but she could be around longer than everyone thinks

The Prime Minister is a sort of political zombie. And they are harder to kill than you'd think.

By Stephen Bush

Is this death? Parliament returned from its autumn recess with Theresa May’s premiership reportedly in a state of considerable fragility. Forty Conservative MPs are “ready” to sign their letters of no confidence in her leadership – just eight short of the percentage required to trigger a vote of the entire parliamentary party.

Elsewhere, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have renewed their Brexit partnership and are using it to press the Prime Minister to make greater concessions to their particular vision of what leaving the European Union looks like. Philip Hammond’s next Budget on 22 November is being described as make or break for both him and the government as a whole.

Given there is no parliamentary majority for either further spending cuts or tax rises, it is difficult, to put it mildly, to see how the Budget will be anything other than a catastrophe for the government. And that’s before you get to the question of whether or not Damian Green will survive the investigation into his conduct.

May can’t go on like this, can she? Except… she almost certainly can. Forty MPs being “ready” to sign a letter of no confidence is some distance away from them actually doing it. It’s rather like being ready to give your boss a piece of your mind. You might say you will do it in a bar with some mates, but there is always an excuse not to the morning after.

Even should some event decisively tip enough MPs into signing those letters, May could still survive a vote of no confidence. Supporters of Amber Rudd and other Remain-backing candidates – a majority of the parliamentary Conservative Party – know that while Brexit remains at risk, they have no chance of winning over Conservative members.

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They will stick with May until Brexit is done and dusted to maximise their chances of winning the throne thereafter. Brexit ultras have less to fear from an early leadership election but they aren’t on their own a large enough group to win a confidence vote. (And some of this group, however wrong they may be, fear that deposing May could lead to a softer Brexit.)

And regardless of how many ministers May loses as a result of allegations about their conduct, or how badly the Budget goes, that calculation won’t change until Brexit has been seen out – that is to say, until 30 March 2019. And she could even find that she might last longer than that if Brexit goes so badly that the prospect of succeeding her looks particularly unattractive. Which isn’t to say that she won’t decide that the whole thing isn’t worth the candle and resign of her own accord. But it is to say that May’s political position is more secure than it looks – and her chances of surviving not just this year but for the foreseeable future are small, but not non-existent.