Theresa May’s cabinet, like Harold Wilson’s, contains competing “crown princes” who are keeping one another in checkby Tom Quinn / October 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
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…