Replacing Theresa May will take longer than two weeks

Despite suggestions to the contrary, if Tory MPs are agreed on one thing, it’s that the next leadership election will have to be a full contest involving the membership.

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Could Theresa May really be ousted and replaced by the Conservative Party in a fortnight? That’s the suggestion – made in a provocative tweet by Tory backbencher Mark Pritchard – causing mischief in Westminster today.

Advertising the ease with which the Prime Minister could in theory be replaced with somebody else is a peculiar gambit from a supporter of her Brexit strategy, which Pritchard is. But even more notable is the fact that just about nobody believes it could happen.

Barely any Conservative MPs think there should be a leadership election before the UK formally leaves the EU in March 2019. Most cite a lack of time, and the need to see Brexit through. Few are convinced by Pritchard’s insistence that a full contest in parliament and among the party in the country would be over in a matter of days. Notably, those opposing a leadership election include both those attempting to kill Chequers and government loyalists.

The case against combines the practical and political. One senior Brexiteer tells me that attempting to hold a full leadership election over anything less than a month (at a minimum) would be “legally dubious”. There are around 124,000 Tory members, and a six-day turnaround for any number of postal ballots is wildly optimistic. While MPs do acknowledge that the parliamentary end of a contest could be sewn up reasonably quickly, there is a consensus that the membership will have to be involved.

This – and the expectation of hustings and a “full national tour” – would necessarily lengthen any contest. One backroom Tory points out that, with the agreement of the 1922 Committee and party board, the timetable could be truncated. But the consequences of May’s coronation in 2016 means the party is opposed to another and wants a proper debate. Its internal divisions – and the lack of an obvious, unifying frontrunner – also mean it is unlikely to happen anyway. “If there were a natural successor, then Pritchard’s plan would work,” says one MP. “But there isn’t, so it won’t.”

The unresolved question of Brexit and the dearth of top Tory talent all but guarantee a crowded field, a bitterly divided parliamentary party, and something resembling a proper campaign for a membership that has not had a say on who its leader is since 2005. Whenever May goes, the contest to succeed here is unlikely to be quick.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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