Desperate Tory MPs are wrong to think ousting Theresa May will solve their Brexit problems

While a cabinet revolt could force May out, a full-blown leadership contest – and even a short, sharp one – would take several months to complete.

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When David Cameron was prime minister, political journalists would often call Conservative MPs to find out what the mood in Downing Street was. Now that Theresa May is prime minister, it’s the other way round: Conservative MPs call journalists to find out what Downing Street is thinking.

It’s not that journalists have a closer relationship with May than her parliamentary colleagues; it’s just that extracting information from her is a task that challenges even professional news-gatherers.

On the whole, the complaints that backbenchers and lobby reporters make are virtually identical. Making small talk with the Prime Minister is like attempting to climb Everest without a rope in bad weather. Then, when the conversation turns to serious topics, she simply repeats a prepared set of lines. Anyone who wants to know her unguarded thoughts should invest in a time machine, because she trusts only a handful of people she has known for several decades.

There is one difference, however. Conservative MPs have the added worry that May’s political approach threatens their jobs. This week, one minister confessed to calling three journalists to try to find out what had been behind the Prime Minister’s latest actions. “I kept hoping that someone would tell me there’s a clever strategy behind the madness,” the minister explained.

For many, the end of their tolerance was reached on 20 March, when May delivered a televised speech berating MPs for failing to fall in behind her deal. Pro-Europeans were angry that the Prime Minister was parroting the line that they were sabotaging Brexit. This accusation is repeated in death threats and angry emails to their parliamentary in-boxes. Brexiteer critics of the deal, meanwhile, objected to being lectured on how best to implement the referendum result from someone who campaigned for Remain. And loyal supporters of May’s plan were perplexed that she appeared to suggest that “no deal” was back on the table, when a vote by MPs to block a disorderly exit had successfully spooked some members of the ultra-Brexiteer European Research Group into backing the deal instead.

May’s televised speech on 20 March was a classic of Downing Street’s media strategy: scheduling an address by the Prime Minister for just after 8.30pm guarantees that it will be featured on the national ten o’clock news bulletins, while the build-up can be crashed into “the six”.

When May has had a particularly poor day in the House of Commons, and the clips from parliament are bad, this tactic avoids testy exchanges being repeated on television that evening. Robbie Gibb, May’s communications chief (and a former head of political programming at the BBC), might not be well liked by Tory MPs, but they know that he understands how to shape the media agenda, particularly for broadcast.

That fact, however, only made some Conservative MPs more nervous. They worried that May’s impromptu speech looked like an opening salvo in a general election campaign that she had promised never to lead. To the average Conservative MP, May’s biggest asset is the presumed temporary nature of her stay in Downing Street, and they cheerfully assume that her successor cannot possibly be more ill-suited to the top job than she is.

Yet May’s departure date is still in her own hands. Having been unsuccessfully challenged for the leadership on 12 December 2018, the Conservative Party’s constitution grants her a year’s grace. Only May can bring her leadership to an end before 12 December this year.

The cabinet’s more optimistic members have long believed that they have the power to bring the Prime Minister’s term of office to an abrupt end whenever they choose. After the failed Chequers revolt on 24 March – when Iain Duncan Smith and other Brexiteer backbenchers descended on her weekend home – one minister commented that it would take “a better class of coup” to remove her. Another suggested that May would stand down if faced with the threat of a mass cabinet walkout, “unless [the ultra-loyal Northern Ireland Secretary] Karen Bradley was willing to take three or four cabinet posts”.

The difficulty is that while a cabinet revolt could force May out, a full-blown leadership contest – and even a short, sharp one – would take several months to complete. The only way to do that before Brexit is resolved would be to seek a prolonged extension to the Article 50 process, which would require elections to the European Parliament in May. Neither of the main parties – with their voters split between Leavers and Remainers – wants that.

The alternative is a managed succession. Unfortunately, that would require May’s co-operation, and she has no incentive to allow her political obituary to read that she left the party in a terrible mess and someone else had to resolve it.

That leaves Conservative MPs in a bind. Several cabinet members believe that as long as May is in charge, there can be no resolution to the Brexit crisis. MPs across the House no longer trust her, which makes it difficult for May to secure parliamentary support for her deal. Backbenchers never fear a dying government the way they do a new one, with its powers of patronage. Yet, at the same time, they don’t want the long extension that would be necessary to give them time to change leaders or seek a new electoral mandate.

There is one other thought that torments many Conservative MPs: no replacement leader, however able, is likely to be able to turn things around if Theresa May’s final act as PM is to hurl the United Kingdom over the Brexit cliff edge.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 29 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty