The problem with Theresa May’s speech was not her cough (or at least not only). It was how the loss of her voice so perfectly symbolised the loss of her authority. The prankster handing her a P45 and the collapsing stage slogan merely added to the impression of a Prime Minister doomed by the gods.
A speech meant to strengthen May instead dramatised her weakness. There was no inspiring theme or policy to allow the Conservatives to regain their standing. For these reasons, rather than merely a cough, an increasing number of Tory MPs are of the view that May must resign (as the sacked former culture minister Ed Vaizey said today). “She needs to go now before she does yet more damage,” one of the rebels told me. Another compared her to a pet “waiting to be put down”. MPs fear that keeping May in place until 2019 (the scheduled date for Brexit) risks condemning them to inevitable defeat. The Prime Minister created enemies on the backbenches through her early “cull of the Cameroons” and her neglect of Boris Johnson. Her squandering of the party’s first majority for 23 years gave no them no cause for forgiveness.
Only 47 MPs (15 per cent of the parliamentary party) are required to trigger a binding confidence in vote in May (with letters dispatched privately to 1922 Committee chair Graham Brady). After his cringe-making 2003 conference speech, Iain Duncan Smith was forced out by these means. But rather than a confidence vote, for which there are not yet sufficient numbers, the rebels hope that a delegation of “grey suits” may persuade May to depart.
Against this, however, the factors which kept the Prime Minister in place after the election remain. There is no agreed successor and Tory Remainers fear the election of a “harder Brexiteer” (the Conservative grassroots will likely favour the most eurosceptic in the run-off). The government is midway through the Brexit negotiations and can ill afford to lose yet more time. EU trade talks would be further delayed and Brussels would be well-placed to extract the maximum concessions from Britain. Finally, having lost their majority earlier this year, the Conservatives are loath to do anything that could prompt a second general election. Labour would begin as favourites and Tory MPs sincerely fear the consequences of a Corbyn victory.
The Conservatives, who only recently dreamt of a new era of hegemony, must now choose between bad and worse. Their instinct for regicide means May cannot be assured of survival. How uneasy lies the head that wears the Brexit crown.