Demise delayed

‘Many are beginning to think: might it not be better to let Theresa May’s premiership run on for longer, and only install a new leader 18 months or so before the next general election?’

Politics
Theresa May: Safe until 2020? (Annika Haas CC BY-2.0)

Theresa May’s political demise, after her calamitous decision to call an unnecessary election last year, is taking much longer than most of her Conservative colleagues expected. As the results were coming in on the night of June 8 and it was becoming clear that the Tories were heading for anything but the landslide many of them were still expecting, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg stated that her Conservative contacts were telling her May had only  a 50-50 chance of still being Prime Minister the following afternoon.

Those close to Brexit Secretary David Davis — at that stage the clear frontrunner to take over as leader, being a firm Brexiteer acceptable to Eurosceptic MPs and the wider Conservative membership — were firmly expecting their man to have replaced May in time for the Conservative Party conference in October. May remained in place, but her dreadful conference performance convinced more MPs that it was imperative for her to go and go soon — although perhaps only after the government had secured agreement with the European Union formally to embark on divorce talks. This was achieved last December but the shine from that achievement was quickly obliterated by the forced resignation of Damian Green, the First Secretary of State and de facto Deputy Prime Minister. May’s handling of this crisis might have been enough to trigger a no-confidence ballot; but whether it was the proximity to Christmas or the lack of a clear alternative leader, that threat faded too.

Now, as an interim deal with the EU on the terms of Britain’s transition arrangements for leaving is within grasp and its broad outlines look likely to be acceptable to both wings of the party, Tory MPs, with only a few exceptions, feel that this, at least, needs to be secured before their party embarks on a leadership battle. Many are beginning to think: might it not be better to let May’s premiership run on for longer, and  install a new leader 18 months or so before the next general election?

It is virtually impossible to find any Conservative MPs, or indeed MPs of any party, who believe that May will lead the party into that election. Last June was too awful for them to countenance a re-run. An election, however, is not imminent. Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act — which will remain firmly on the statute books despite the fact the Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto pledged to repeal it as there is clearly no majority to get this through the Commons — the next election is scheduled for May 5, 2022. Last year’s events showed that a government can get around the Act and call an early election, but they also ensured that there is zero appetite for doing so on the Conservative benches. Unless the Brexit negotiations go disastrously wrong, there is little prospect of an election before 2022.

On this basis, Conservative MPs are increasingly thinking it is too early to have a change of leadership now. A new leader will inevitably enjoy a honeymoon bounce, but their appeal might well wear off by the time of the next election if they have already been Prime Minister for three or four years. The new leader may by then be having their own mid-term blues. On the other hand, the thinking goes, perhaps Theresa May was Prime Minister too briefly before her own electoral test for voters to realise that they did not like her — unfortunately for the Conservatives this realisation only dawned on the public in the middle of the general election campaign. Many Conservative MPs now think that the Goldilocks moment — not too long and not too short — to install a new PM is 18 months or so before the next election. It worked tremendously well for John Major and it might well work again.

This would make the autumn of 2020 the most likely time for the next Conservative leadership election. The timing would have other advantages: the Brexit negotiations would, unless things have gone terribly wrong, be well behind us and the transition arrangements would be coming to a close, in December 2020. A new leader could embark on the Prime Ministership with the UK’s status  in relation to Europe a settled matter.

The timing of the next Tory leadership battle will have a major impact on its outcome. A delayed election would make matters more difficult for the bookies’ current favourite, Jacob Rees-Mogg. Part of his appeal to Conservative MPs — and more importantly the wider Tory grassroots — is that he offers an unequivocal and robust position on Brexit. Eurosceptic MPs would currently vote for him to ensure that this vision of Brexit is achieved. Their thinking is that Rees-Mogg could end up second in the MPs’ vote. No one believes that Rees-Mogg, with his persona and trenchant positions, could win over enough MPs from other wings of the party to top the parliamentary ballot. Under this scenario a centrist figure such as Amber Rudd or Jeremy Hunt would come out on top, but Rees-Mogg would then be elected by the wider membership in the country. They would vote for the more Eurosceptic candidate and adore Rees-Mogg and his unambiguous views.

If a leadership election is delayed until 2020 and the Brexit process has run smoothly — which is far from certain — then the candidates’ previous positions on Brexit will become much less relevant. MPs may feel it is less important to vote for ideological purity and may not wish to take the risk of plumping for a leader who is as far from today’s norm as Rees-Mogg. But the scenario which is much more likely to take Rees-Mogg to No 10 is a crisis in the withdrawal negotiations: Eurosceptic MPs might feel that May was backsliding on a full, unambiguous Brexit and this could precipitate an early leadership election.

Conservative MPs are, however, getting used to the idea of May remaining Prime Minister for another two-and-a-half years. Events could still derail this. If, for example, the local elections next month turn out even worse than Conservative MPs are expecting, this might unleash panic which could lead to a rapid denouement. Nevertheless, at the time of writing — with Brexit talks seemingly running well and Corbyn having shown his true foreign policy colours with his handling of Russia’s chemical weapons attack on British soil — events seem to be going in Mrs May’s direction.