By Ben Worthy
I know it doesn’t look like it. May appears to be now deep in her final, terminal doom loop. For more than a year she seems to have been the ‘are you still here?’ leader. Now it seems that time is up. She has, in Churchill’s phrase, stayed in the pub until closing time.
But May has sailed past a series of fatal, points of no return for a PM. She lost an election, nearly broke her party, and has performed a series of spectacular U-turns on Brexit, the one thing she was supposed to get right. Of late, she has lost a Foreign Secretary and two Brexit Secretaries, plus a host of others.
How is she still there? Here’s a few things to keep in mind as the plots and possible vote of confidence swirl:
1. She is still the prime minister and no one else is. She still has the office and the prestige. If she walks into a room, the Prime Minister of the UK and First Lord of the Treasury has arrived. If Boris Johnson walks in, the ex-foreign secretary/ex-Mayor of London has shambled in.
She also still has the power. She has patronage, party loyalty and the force of prime ministerial persuasion. For all her supposed weakness, what she says and does still makes the weather. On Brexit her speeches and comments are poured over and examined. Ultimately, while she’s still in Downing Street only she can decide, negotiate and sign an agreement, subject to a ‘meaningful vote’. What can Boris Johnson do? Write columns. The key question is whether she has any authority left.
2. Removing prime ministers is very difficult. The rules for electing a leader were written by leaders to protect leaders. It’s no longer the case that you can stand ‘against’ a Conservative leader. In the past Tories had a bizarre rule where a challenger could have a go and mount a challenge annually.
The new rules mean that there are no stalking horses, hats in the ring or challengers. You have to remove before installing, in two distinct stages. Stage one is that 48 letters are sent to the 1922 committee, meaning that a vote of confidence is called that the leader must win with 50% or more (in this case 159 votes). Only if she loses does the process move to stage two, where there would there be a leadership election between new candidates, voted on first by MPs then the party membership.
The process means not one but potentially two votes, if not three, with each stage full of uncertainty. What if May survives ? What if she loses narrowly and a new leadership election starts? What if the rows break up the brittle Tory party? In a crisis like Brexit, most MPs will stick to the devil they know rather than risk it. This is especially the case if the light at the end of the tunnel is actually Boris Johnson speeding down the tracks towards them. Being more Machiavellian about it, having Boris doesn’t even increase the Conservatives poll lead. I’d strongly advise you follow Dr Catherine Haddon to find out more (@cath_haddon)
It also comes down to cold numbers. Unhappy Brexiter MPs have enough grumpy members to get 48 letters written (probably) but not enough (probably) to win a confidence vote. Hence the rumour and plots have been a smokescreen for their weakness, a bluff that has been called over and over. Hanging over all this is the danger that, though some constitutional quirk, Corbyn could become prime minister and have us all ‘wearing overalls and breaking wind in the Palaces of the Mighty’, as a great man once said.
3. Chaos is the new normal. Brexit is one big, rolling multi-layered constitutional, political and social crisis. Remember how worried everyone was by Scottish Independence in 2014? By my rough calculations, May has created or worsened four major constitutional crises so far. That’s one crisis every 5.5 months. We’ve got so many crises we’ve forgot we are in them. The more used we get to upheaval and sheer weirdness, the less we are shocked by plots and leadership crisis. How many crunch votes has May scraped through? How many leadership ‘challenges’ or plots has she survived? This probably makes May safer as a source stability – and what’s a lost vote or a little leadership plotting when the UK seems to be disintegrating?
So far, as I’ve said, May has been lucky in the incompetence and division of her enemies. However, these factors that protect her could all be short-circuited if she resigns or is forced to step down. So far, May has followed Harold Wilson’s approach. ‘I know what’s going on’ said Wilson when he heard of plots against him ‘I’m going on’. The next few days will show if she’s allowed to.