For someone who seems profoundly unintelligent, Theresa May has turned out to be a remarkably radical and inventive prime minister. She now operates on the principle that, despite leading a nation whose constitution is based on precedent, custom and practice, she can comfortably ignore precedent, custom and practice. The largest parliamentary defeat in history on 15 January was not enough to make her resign; she holds the same office that Neville Chamberlain did when, having in 1940 won the Norway debate by 81 votes, it was decided it was insufficient for him to stay in office. It beggars belief that any prime minister since the 1832 Reform Act, and probably before it, would have done anything other than resign at once after such an awesome defeat as May has endured.
Various factors empower her, however temporarily. The opposition is even more split than her own party. The leader of the opposition, a veteran Bennite anti-European long before the word “Brexiteer” was coined, is no more capable of presenting an honest way forward than May is. And, at a time when the Speaker, John Bercow, rewrites constitutional practice as he sees fit, she can simply defy precedent, custom and practice and continue – or try to continue – to sit at the head of the government, and defy her opponents to remove her.
A cabinet largely composed of mediocre professional politicians – most with any ability or principle have left – clings to Theresa May as the best means of ensuring the chauffeur-driven car continues to call each morning. It may soon, though, realise that its desperate ambition is likely best to be served by May’s removal from office.
A young Conservative activist asked me, shortly after the vote on Tuesday evening, what it would take for the cabinet to realise that May’s abominable leadership qualities presented an existential threat to the party. The answer, probably, is when they start to grasp the crumbling of support for them in their own constituencies, and the possibility of an early end to their careers. MPs report angry exchanges with activists who have said they will not campaign for the party in an election; some on the payroll who were among the 196 Tories to support May on Tuesday did so with a heavy heart, because of the problems it threatens to cause them among their base.
After the vote the mood among Tories, even those who opposed May’s “deal”, was one of shock: they had not expected a defeat so huge. As far as many were concerned, dealing with Labour’s motion of no confidence in the government was the easy part of what May now has to do.
The hard part – making decisions for the future and acting like a leader – would follow. Trying to extend Article 50, or advocating a second referendum, would be likely to cause so many ministerial resignations that a government led by May would become untenable. Few on Tuesday night believed any sort of renegotiation was feasible. And if May were to say Britain would just have to leave without a deal – the default position, and what may happen anyway – she would almost certainly lose a number of Remainers from her cabinet.
But in the days before her humiliating defeat, and in anticipation of it, senior Tories were already talking about the feasibility of her own continuation in office. She cannot, now, be removed by her MPs – the half-hearted vote of confidence in her before Christmas means she is spared that until next December. But, as Margaret Thatcher would tell her were she still around, her ministers can throw her out.
If enough of them simply told May the truth – that her appalling conduct of the negotiations proved she is unequal to the task of leading the country, and there is no obvious purpose served by her staying in Downing Street – then the stubbornness and obstinacy in which she seems to take such pride would count for nothing. She would have to cease to be the Queen’s First Minister, because she would struggle to find anyone of ability prepared to serve under her: and those with real clout in the party will privately, and in growing numbers, tell her to go.
What would happen next has been much discussed in the highest Tory circles. Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, is said to have indicated it would be in order for May to advise the Queen to send for David Lidington, the de facto deputy prime minister, as an interim minder of the shop.
The leadership election, provided the party board agrees, could be telescoped into three or four weeks, with hustings spread over a few days. The only delay would be the printing of ballot papers and their distribution to the membership.
A number of people, or more usually their proxies, are on manoeuvres – Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab and Amber Rudd, and that now inconsequential group of MPs who still think Boris Johnson, after his many failures as foreign secretary, would be a good idea. But first, those on whose goodwill May depends have to resolve to get her out before the damage becomes irreparable, even under a new and more dynamic leader and against a flawed and divided opposition.
In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s debacle most Tories were more concerned about the future of their party than about the future of the country; but then it was always ever thus that the two, for most Tories, were inextricably linked. For the moment, a poorly led Labour party allows May’s own doomed leadership to limp on, despite carrying fatal wounds. But after Tuesday her party knows that this, and she, cannot go on much longer.
Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. His most recent book is “The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914” (Windmill Books)
This article appears in the 16 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain