Press and party are deserting Theresa May – how long can she stagger on?

There are plenty available to replace her: Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, Boris Johnson, Cameroon dark horse Jeremy Hunt and grass roots’ favourite Jacob Rees-Mogg.

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It is interesting how many spectators of the Tory party’s private grief over Brexit think Theresa May won’t be removed as its leader and as Prime Minister. First, it is assumed that those who would force her out would be Brexiteers, but they won’t do so because they might get something worse. Second, it is assumed her removal during the negotiations would harm our chance of a decent deal, so the Tories – fearing the opprobrium of the electorate – won’t do that. Third, to repeat a common cliché, “there isn’t a replacement”. Fourth, a three-month leadership contest would allegedly destabilise the party and the country, and further complicate the negotiations. Fifth, it is assumed there is no need to remove her because she will go of her own accord once Brexit is completed.

It would be a brave man or woman who went to Paddy Power and staked the farm on her staying because of any of the above. Dissatisfaction with May’s pusillanimous style of leadership is not confined to Brexiteers. Ken Clarke’s assault last Sunday on the “misbehaviour” and “shambles” of the government was not specifically aimed at Theresa May: but it did not have to be. The misbehaviour and shambles exist only because an inadequate Prime Minister allows them to. The last-minute panics, fudges and postponements that characterised the handling of the Brexit Bill have changed nothing fundamental. May remains a poor Prime Minister, lacking the moral courage that is thought implicit in leadership and the decisiveness essential to it. She implored her MPs not to rebel over the Lords’ amendments because it would “undermine” her negotiating position; but many MPs believe nothing has undermined that more than May herself.

They have waited, in vain, for her to talk tough with Brussels. Many cannot understand why, given Britain’s huge trade deficit with the EU, she is not warning them of the damage done to the EU economy if that trade declines. They also wonder why she has not told the Irish that if they are concerned about a hard border they should take it up with Brussels, since if there is one it will be imposed by the EU and through no wish of the British. Their greatest lament about her is that she has displayed inertia and timidity instead of energy and courage in meeting the EU head-on, and seems reluctant to follow through on both the outcome of the 2016 referendum and on her party’s manifesto promise.

Since the Brexiteers who would like her out are also advocating preparation for a “no deal” – or rather, an exit followed by trading on WTO rules – it could not matter less to them if defenestrating her affected what passes for the present process of negotiation. As far as the Brexiteers are concerned, the public has given a clear, democratic mandate to the government to leave the EU. They have lost patience with May’s ineffectual driving of that process. They believe the public will welcome the certainty that would come with an uncompromising – and an uncompromised – exit: and therefore, if such an outcome cannot be achieved with May, they will seek to achieve it without her.

It is not merely that for them the cause is bigger than loyalty to a leader they regard as a failure; it is also that they hear from the grass roots of the anger at the continuing uncertainty that May’s mismanagement has – entirely unnecessarily, in their view – brought and they wish to end it.

There are plenty available to replace her: ask Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, Boris Johnson (on manoeuvres again: few colleagues believe he didn’t have a hand in leaking the tape of himself at a dinner last week, though his parliamentary support is said to have shrunk greatly), the Cameroon dark horse Jeremy Hunt and the grass roots’ favourite Jacob Rees-Mogg. Even in the most untalented party (a title to which the present Conservatives make a compelling claim) there is always someone who will emerge, as May herself did in 2016. Tory MPs talk of there being perhaps ten who might enter a leadership election, if Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, received the 48 letters required to trigger one. Nor need such a contest take three months; the 1922 has the discretion to modify the timetable. The main time constraint is the speed with which ballot papers for the plebiscite of the membership can be printed, distributed and returned. In terms of complexity, it is hardly splitting the atom.

What depresses intelligent Brexiteers even more than May’s being so out of her depth is the word that comes from the few close to her that she is determined to stay on not merely after 29 March next year, but to fight an election that may not take place until 2022. Very few MPs want that to happen; but the parliamentary party should be in no doubt that if it wishes to prevent it, it is likely to have to remove her. Her opponents talk openly, and tastelessly, about her engineering a “dignified” exit because of her diabetes. That seems wishful thinking.

The Brexit fiasco is just another example of how May lacks the fundamentals of a prime minister. It was apparent in her bunker-like conduct of the Home Office, for those who chose to see it; in her foolishness in calling last year’s election; in her catastrophic oversight of the campaign; her inability to engage in acts of governance other than Brexit; her poor choice of cabinet colleagues; and above all how she has appeared helpless to stop a breakdown of collective cabinet responsibility that mocks what most took to be a basic precept of the British constitution.

The Tory press are deserting her; her colleagues are, at best, indifferent. Perhaps it can go on like this: but if it does, neither she nor her party will come out alive.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?