Who’d have thought that Theresa May’s crumbling backdrop in Manchester was an omen about the fate of her cabinet? Priti Patel is the latest letter to fall, resigning last night after being summoned back from her Uganda trip to account for herself.
When the Telegraph‘s splash is “Another day, another crisis”, you know something has gone very wrong for a Tory PM. But it will be hard to find any papers to cover that one up with in Downing Street today. “PM’s turmoil grows as Patel quits over Israeli meetings” crows the Guardian, “It’s Priti Shambolic” chuckles the Mirror, while “Patel quits over Israel furore” is the i‘s take. This week’s New Statesman takes up the general theme of Conservative disintegration: “The Tory sinking ship” is our cover story.
The Times looks across to the Channel, where the rest of the EU is increasingly worried what May’s weakness means for the Brexit talks. “Fears government will collapse as Patel quits” is their splash.
May is expected to go for another limited reshuffle – her difficulty is while investigations of sexual harassment are ongoing, with what may be Philip Hammond’s last budget still to come, Downing Street know full well that they may be forced into another reshuffle sooner rather than later. But a simple “one in, one out” move is difficult because of the pressure to ensure the replacement is also a Brexiteer or, at least, as Jacob Rees-Mogg put it, someone who is “enthusiastic” about Brexit.
But the list of Brexiteers who are equipped to hold the Department for International Development post starts and ends with one name, and unfortunately for the PM that name is “Priti Patel”. (Say what you like about Patel’s opinions on international development before she took on the brief but she did at least have some.)
Does that mean that November might be the end of May? Well, one of the things that everyone has forgotten is that the PM still has one major asset: his name is Jeremy Corbyn. The fear of a Corbyn-led government among Tory MPs is large enough that she has the power to conduct wider changes than she thinks, and the widespread feeling that an early election means a Labour victory means that no one in the Tory party is going to bring the house down. (And that’s before you get into the difficulty of bringing about an early election unless the executive wants one thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act).
Of course the PM might decide that the job is one of unending misery and to simply walk out. But zoom out, and it’s not Theresa May who is having a bad week: it’s the Conservative Party. Say what you like about her, but at the end of last week Priti Patel looked like a viable choice for the party leadership – that’s over.
On the Tory left, Stephen Crabb’s hopes of a comeback are surely dead in the water now. Amber Rudd’s Hastings problem (that is, her wafer-thin majority) is overwritten, but her problem with Tory activists is underwritten. While Brexit is at risk, she has no chance of winning over ordinary members.
Gavin Williamson has soured his colleagues after his big move to Defence. Boris Johnson survives for now but has reminded his colleagues (again) why they don’t want him near the top job. And it seems unlikely, to put it mildly, that Hammond is going to emerge from the Budget in a stronger political position than he has now.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that when Tory MPs look around at the available options to replace Theresa May, for now at least, there isn’t anything that is immediately more appealing. Don’t forget either, that the worse things get, the less appetising the prospect of going down in history as the forgotten prime minister between May and Corbyn becomes.
It’s not at all likely that May will get a second crack at the electorate – but you know, it’s not impossible either. So yes, a bad week for May’s hopes of success and a very bad week indeed for the Conservative Party. But not, necessarily, a bad week for May herself.