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Can Theresa May hang on as her cabinet falls apart?

One of the things everyone has forgotten is that the PM still has one major asset: his name is Jeremy Corbyn.

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. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.