Ahead of tonight’s vote of confidence in Theresa May, Downing Street has given its strongest indication yet of how the Prime Minister intends to keep her job: by promising Tory MPs that she will give it up.
Addressing reporters after a surprisingly bloodless session of Prime Minister’s Questions, a senior aide said that May “doesn’t believe the vote today is about who leads the party into the next election… it’s about whether it’s sensible to change leader at this point in negotiations.”
The implicit suggestion – which will no doubt be made more nakedly when the Prime Minister addresses the 1922 Committee at 5pm – was that May will tell Conservative MPs that she will see out Brexit and then resign. The year’s immunity from further challenge she would gain from a win tonight would give her a mandate to do just that.
That’s an abrupt departure from the unfounded optimism May exuded about long she could go on as recently as October, when – to some alarm among her own MPs – she delivered a conference speech entitled Campaign 2022. It does, however, mark a return to the tone of contrition and duty she struck in the immediate aftermath of last year’s election, when, as her aides reminded us, told her MPs that she would serve “as long as you want me”.
For the quiet majority of Tories on and off the government payroll, that time frame has always been coterminous with the Brexit process. They have been saying so privately since the beginning of this parliament. George Freeman, the former minister and head of May’s policy unit, articulated that mainstream view publicly in September, when he said May should quit once Britain formally left the EU on 29 March 2019.
The Prime Minister’s gamble is twofold. She is betting that that mainstream view still exists, and that it has endured the fallout from the signing of the withdrawal agreement, a string of resignations spanning the entire ideological breadth of Conservative Party, and the trust-sapping delay of this week’s meaningful vote.
More fundamentally, May is staking everything on them still subscribing to the pitch she gave them last June: “I got us into this mess, and I’m going to get us out of it.” As she did on the steps of Downing Street this morning, she will try and convince colleagues that the mess they risk by ousting her will be even uglier than the one they are currently trapped in. Having broken so many promises before, however – and having set out her domestic agenda so enthusiastically at conference – she will have a hard time convincing some.