October 04, 2017
On why Theresa May is likely to survive
Yesterday was the big day at the Tory Party conference in Manchester - Boris Johnson gave a rebel-rousing speech, and the audience loved it. But make no mistake. There is no chance that Boris is going for, let alone winning the top job any time soon - unless Theresa May really flunks her big speech to the conference today. We have seen extracts from the speech in the British press, and while it does not appear to be nearly as emotive as Johnson’s, her appeal to unity and to focus on the future beyond Brexit are ultimately hard to disagree with.
Daniel Finkelstein, a Tory member of the House of Lords, writes in his Times column that the internal party rules make it virtually impossible for a rebel to unseat her. The reason lies in the party’s divisions. The Remainers fear that if they stab her in the back, they will end up getting someone worse - like Johnson. And the Leavers fear that a coup might bring down the government, trigger elections, and ultimately frustrate Brexit. Finkelstein notes that the first round of a leadership contest would be a vote to withdraw confidence from the existing leader. If only one section of the party rebelled - say the Leavers - Ms May would have no trouble fending this off. This is why Johnson’s antics ahead of the conference are likely to end up strengthening her, because they cause alarm with the Remainers. That does not mean that May is safe. If there is a consensus in the party that she has to go, then that will happen. But the whole point about the Tories right now is that there is no such consensus.
Our own assessment is that May will survive the Brexit period but we make no predictions beyond that. This does, however, not mean that all is well for the Tory party. The party has been tearing itself apart over Europe for over 30 years. And Brexit has actually made it worse. We noted a comment by Laura Kuenssberg about the party’s utter disappointment about May - described by one of her colleagues as “bent and broken”. Kuennsberg concurs that this will not translate in a leadership challenge, but the party is gripped by an existential fear.
Rachel Sylvester, the Times columnist who recently did a much remarked-on hatchet job on Johnson, also notes that May is driving the party into the ground. She quotes one older MP as noting that the fall in the party’s leadership to below 100,000, and the rise in the average age to 70, are telling us that the party current has no future.