The Theresa May paradox: her weakness has become her strength

MPs dare not throw her out yet for fear that a new leader would mean another general election—and a Corbyn victory

September 01, 2017
The PM insisted earlier this week that she is "not a quitter." Photo:  Carl Court/PA Wire/PA Images
The PM insisted earlier this week that she is "not a quitter." Photo: Carl Court/PA Wire/PA Images

Theresa May’s insistence that she is “not a quitter” when asked whether she would step down before the next election has predictably sparked another round of speculation about her future. In another interview, she was asked whether she intended to lead her party into the next election and replied, “Yes, I’m in this for the long term.”

The response was swift. Her old foe, George Osborne, used an editorial in the Evening Standard to pour scorn on her comments. He accused her government of staggering on like “the Living Dead in a second-rate horror film.” Another former cabinet minister, Nicky Morgan, doubted that May could contest another election. The Conservative peer and former deputy prime minister, Lord Heseltine, said she had no long-term future.

On one level, May’s comments were unremarkable. If she had given any public hint that she did not intend to stay on beyond an anticipated Brexit deal in 2019, it could have destroyed what little authority she had left after the loss of her majority in June. Both Tony Blair and David Cameron saw their authority drain away after they set deadlines for their departures and neither was able to see out the full parliamentary term that each had wanted to serve. Once a party knows its leader is in the departure lounge, the countdown commences and it becomes the dominant media narrative. The effect can be debilitating for the leader, the party and sometimes the country. May’s talk of the work she has to do on Brexit was designed to avoid that scenario.

The problem, of course, is that her position is severely weakened, and everyone—including the PM—knows it. She called an unnecessary early election to increase her Commons majority but ended up squandering a 20-point lead in the polls. She then found herself cobbling together a deal with the DUP to enable her to run a minority government. The weakness of her government’s position may well undermine its bargaining strength in the Brexit talks. It’s no wonder that most observers assume she will go long before the next election.

But it is also the Conservatives’ weakness that paradoxically makes her position safer than it might have been, in the short term at least. Any change of leader would inevitably lead to demands for an early general election, which could mean further losses for the Tories, and perhaps a Corbyn-led Labour government. A leadership contest would reopen Conservative divisions over Brexit. “Hard” Brexiteers and former Remainers who want a “soft” Brexit would fight to impose their competing visions, all in the full glare of publicity.

It is notable that most of the criticisms of May’s recent comments came from ex-Remainers, who oppose her plans to withdraw Britain from the single market and the customs union. A leadership contest would offer this faction renewed hope in the Brexit negotiations. By the same calculation, “hard” Brexiteers, such as John Redwood, have been prominent in endorsing May’s comments, no doubt seeing her as the best bet for a cleaner break with the EU. Between the two camps, there is a large middle ground of Tory MPs who want a period of stability. That could be helped by allowing May to get on with the job of negotiating the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, free from the distractions of leadership contests—at least while her authority holds.

May is held in place because of the competing aims of the party factions, not because of any great support. If the calculation of MPs changes, she could be forced out. It would take 15 per cent of Conservative MPs—48 in total—writing to the chairman of the backbench 1922 committee to trigger a confidence vote. The party conference in October poses a threat to May’s position—it is always rife with speculation about and plotting against weak leaders. It will be her next big test. In a sense, that is the problem: every set-piece event, whether it is the Queen’s speech, the party conference, by-elections or local elections, will be the “next big test.” Eventually, the drip-drip effect takes its toll. May hasn’t reached that point yet, but she will eventually, and as things stand, that is unlikely to be the other side of the next general election.