UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, has led an increasingly divided Conservative Party since 2016 when David Cameron resigned following the EU Referendum. Right from day one May was in an impossible position, charged with the task of delivering Brexit which she had campaigned against and trapped in the middle of right-wing Tories demanding a complete break with Europe – the so-called ‘Hard Brexit’ – and members to the left of her party who called for a ‘soft Brexit’ or, indeed, no Brexit at all. As if this wasn’t enough May was leading a government that scarcely had a majority in the House of Commons despite being the biggest party. May, searching for some sort of alliance if she was going to get any legislation through at all, made a deal with the Northern Irish DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) whose nine Westminster MP’s are, to say the least, somewhat right of centre.
Couple May’s ‘difficult’ position in the House of Commons, pressure from both wings of her party and her apparent almost total lack of charisma and we have a disaster waiting to happen. On the very few times that May appears on TV or in public she wears a haunted expression, she is struggling to maintain the unity of both her party and the United Kingdom. Every Prime Minister seeks a ‘legacy’ – something which historians will look back on as their defining contribution to the story of this country. May is staring failure in the face realising that her ‘legacy’ will be either the destruction of the Conservative Party as we know it or seriously damaging the UK both economically or from a political point of view as Scotland again raises the question of independence and strong voices in Northern Ireland are calling for union with the Republic of Ireland.
Given all of the above circumstances, it is surprising that May has survived so long as the leader of the Conservative Party but are her days numbered now? I believe that the answer is “yes” and the only remaining questions are when will the end come and who will replace May? The Conservative Party rules allow for two different ways in which a Conservative Prime Minister can be removed. Firstly the Prime Minister can resign – this is unlikely because having once achieved power few are willing to relinquish it voluntarily, secondly if 15% of Conservative MP’s write to the 1922 Committee – the group of back-bench Conservatives MP’s who liaise with the front benchers and leadership – and say that they have no confidence in the Prime Minister then they can trigger a leadership contest.
Given that there are 315 Conservative MP’s 48 will need to write saying that they have no confidence which leaves, again, two scenarios – are there sufficient MP’s wanting to see an end to May’s time as Prime Minister and secondly will those 48 (or more) agree on a timing for their actions or, like May, risk being seen as the people who destroyed the Conservative Party? To take the first question, given the intense media speculation it would seem that political correspondents have done the maths and believe that there are enough disaffected Conservative MP’s to trigger a contest. Whether or not this trigger will be used and when it could be used are what is not open to debate. Looking at the Brexit timetable might suggest that if the right of the party, as represented by the European Research Group (ERG), is looking to force the hand of Theresa May to seek a ‘Hard Brexit’ and launch their challenge sooner rather than later. May is already backed into a very tight corner with the so-called “Chequer’s Plan” apparently struggling to gain any sort of acceptance with the EU and a ‘Hard Brexit’ may be the only option that remains. If this is the case then the ERG might delay their challenge and then seek to replace the Prime Minister with one of their supporters in early 2019 so that they are the ones seen by the public as delivering Brexit.
The Conservative Party is meeting for its annual in Birmingham on 30th September and this could be a pivotal moment in that it is a time when MP’s and political advisors get to meet with party activists and to judge their feelings on Brexit and the job that Theresa May is doing. Conservative Party membership is falling and has 70,000 members compared with 552,000 for the Labour Party, 118,000 SNP and 103,000 Liberal Democrat members. Add to this the demographic of Conservative Party members, the average age of whom is 72, and support for a ‘hard Brexit’ will be strong among that group. If the Conservative Party members in Birmingham suggest that they are unhappy with May’s leadership then a leadership contest might be triggered sooner rather than later.
If a leadership contest goes ahead who then is likely to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and, by default, the next UK Prime Minister. The ‘favourite’ to take over what is, arguably, the most difficult job in UK politics at what is possibly the most problematic time since the Second World War is Boris Johnson who has the Brexit credentials demanded by the ERG and is popular with the party membership although one has to ask oneself if personality and the way that he handled his job as Foreign Secretary makes him idea Prime Ministerial material. The second favourite is the present Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, with Jacob Rees-Mogg a somewhat distant third.
The somewhat frustrating aspect of all this is that at a crucial time in the UK’s political history we will be lead by a Prime Minister with a fudged majority and elected by fewer than 100,000 ageing Conservative Party members and MP’s with their own political agendas – hardly a recipe for uniting the country!