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18 December 2017

Why Theresa May is a lot safer than you might think

The PM can stay in office indefinitely provided she can keep the soft Brexiteers on side.

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May, we want you to stay? That’s the message coming out of the Conservative Party per the Times‘s Sam Coates: an increasing number of Tory MPs want the PM to stick around until the question of Britain’s EU exit is resolved.

The notional reason is to avoid the Brexit talks being thrown into chaos by a leadership election. That holds true for some MPs but there is also a growing sense that while Brexit is in doubt, the likes of Amber Rudd have no hope of convincing Conservative activists to back them in a leadership contest.

There’s another element that is particularly important as the cabinet finally begins to discuss just how much regulatory alignment it is willing to put up with in order to retain a close trading relationship with the EU: the balance of forces in the Conservative Party.

Although there are enough Brexit ultras to force a vote of no confidence in May’s leadership, they are nowhere close to making up half of the parliamentary party plus one, which means that the PM can stay in office indefinitely provided she can keep the soft Brexiteers – who made her Prime Minister in the first place, don’t forget – on side.

A softer Brexit might lose the votes of some Conservative backbenchers but it would be more than made up for by Labour votes if May reached out. That’s the deal that the Conservative rebels are urging Downing Street to make, Heather Stewart reveals in the Guardian. If May takes that route she can remain in Downing Street until 2021 and perhaps even have another crack at the electorate. (Stranger things have happened, you know.)

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But the PM could also do a deal in the opposite direction. Yes, the balance of forces in parliament favours a soft Brexit. But parliament lost its main leverage over the shape of Brexit when it voted to trigger Article 50 and it’s not immediately clear how – or even if – that power can be regained. Conservative Remainers can’t upset the apple cart either because any Tory leadership election would see activists opt for a hard Brexiteer anyway.

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So for all that there is a great deal of talk about May’s weakness, as the time comes to decide what the final relationship with the European Union will look like, she has more freedom to set the country’s destination than is widely thought.