Are the PM’s rivals cancelling one another out?

Theresa May’s cabinet, like Harold Wilson’s, contains competing “crown princes” who are keeping one another in check

October 10, 2017
Cabinet ministers—will one of them be the next PM? Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Wire/PA Images
Cabinet ministers—will one of them be the next PM? Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Wire/PA Images

Even by the Conservatives’ recent standards, the past week has been extraordinary. There was the excruciating conference speech, and the subsequent plot to bring May down, led by Grant Shapps. The PM has been drawn into speculation about a reshuffle, which has led to reports that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson would flatly refuse to be moved from his post. These have now been followed by reports that Phillip Hammond is the target of a briefing campaign by hard Brexiteers who want him sacked. It’s like an episode of House of Cards.

All of this is a consequence of the collapse in May’s authority following her disastrous election gamble in June. A lame-duck prime minister has left a power vacuum at the top of the party. The void is being filled with leadership plots, “personal manifestos” from cabinet big beasts, and an incessant briefing war. The question now is: what’s going to happen?

Technically, it would be easy for Conservative MPs to oust May. It needs 48 of them to write, confidentially, to the chairman of the backbench 1922 committee to demand a confidence vote. Once granted, there would be a secret ballot of Tory MPs and if a majority voted against May, she would be compelled to resign as party leader. A leadership contest would follow but May would not be permitted to run again.

Yet it hasn’t happened, despite May having no core base of ideological support in the party. She has survived until now and could conceivably do so for a while longer because of fortuitous circumstances that have often been absent when previous prime ministers came under serious internal pressure.

Insofar as leadership succession is concerned, prime ministers may find themselves facing one of three power relations with their cabinets. First, there is the dominant prime minister, such as Thatcher for much of her time in office, where there is no clear successor. Prime-ministerial patronage can be used to promote loyalists and manage the cabinet big beasts. Second, the cabinet could contain a single heir apparent, in the manner of Anthony Eden or Gordon Brown, who may typically behave cautiously for fear of throwing it all away. Third, the prime minister may face rival “crown princes,” the latter vying with each other for the succession. Harold Wilson found himself in this position in the 1960s with Roy Jenkins and James Callaghan. They ended up neutralising each other, afraid to move against Wilson in case they handed the prize to the other.

Theresa May’s cabinet, like Wilson’s, contains competing crown princes. These are Johnson, Hammond, David Davis, the Brexit secretary, and Amber Rudd, the home secretary. The recent briefing war has seemingly been conducted by supporters of some or all of these figures. Ideological divisions exist, with Johnson and Davis being Leavers, while Hammond and Rudd were Remainers. But personal ambitions are also at stake, and whenever the prime minister’s position starts to look precarious, the hostile briefings flare up again. Wilson reckoned that the system of crown princes was advantageous for him because his rivals kept each other in check. That is what has been happening in the Conservative Party over the last week, with the backlash against Johnson and the attack on Hammond. Rudd has studiously played the loyalty card, which could be cashed in during the next leadership election.

“Roy Jenkins and James Callaghan ended up neutralising each other, afraid to move against Wilson in case they handed the prize to the other"
There is one other important advantage that May enjoys over some former prime ministers in similar predicaments. When Wilson, Thatcher, Brown and John Major were suffering acute leadership crises, their parties trailed the opposition badly in the polls, typically by 20 percentage points, and their personal approval ratings were abysmal. While May's government has fallen back somewhat since earlier in the year, it is not plumbing the depths of unpopularity. Despite all the chaos, the Conservatives are almost level-pegging with Labour in the polls. May’s personal ratings have taken a hit, but she is still—just—seen as likely to be a better prime minister than Jeremy Corbyn, according to YouGov. Another pollster, ORB International, found that almost six-in-ten voters, tired of the constant upheaval, want May to stay on at least until the Brexit negotiations are concluded.

The polls and the crown princes might be enough to stabilise May’s position for the time being, at least until the inevitable next crisis. But accidents can happen. If enough letters were gathered for a confidence vote, May could very easily lose it, if some of her rivals signalled to their supporters to vote against her. It is probably why May does not go down the route taken by Major in 1995 in calling for a vote in her own leadership (which she would be entitled to do according to Tory rules).

The biggest threats to May’s medium-term survival are a Conservative collapse in the polls or a controversial concession in the Brexit talks. The first would see Tory self-preservation kick in as MPs looked to save their seats. The second could split the party, leading one of the crown princes to make their move. One thing is clear, however: May no longer controls her own destiny and is kept in place by circumstances alone.