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01 Dec 2017

Politics and Society

Strong and stable? Not so much. But that’s not to say Theresa May is about to fall. Far from it. Of course, events may yet see her off, but her position is structurally far more secure than many assume.

And a weak and (relatively) stable prime minister is not what the country currently needs. Particularly when it comes to Brexit.

The weakness hardly needs to be pointed out. We have a prime minister unable to impose her views on her parliamentary party or even her own Cabinet.

And as the Brexit negotiations rumble on, this is increasingly impacting on her ability to strike a deal with her European partners.

Philip Hammond urged the prime minister to increase her offer on the divorce bill and, as the EU27 insist, to put it in writing.

Boris Johnson and other Cabinet Brexiters, while agreeing to increase the UK offer to about £ 40 billion, stress that this is dependent on guarantees from the EU on a future trade deal – which are simply not going to be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, the official UK stance is that the negotiations should move onto a future trade deal as soon as possible.

But, even if the prime minister did make a substantive set of proposals on the divorce bill or the future relationship, why should the EU27 take them seriously — she would be writing cheques that there is no evidence she is able to cash.

In parliament, the government is confronted with serial rebellions from its own side. Over 450 amendments have been tabled to the withdrawal bill, many supported, or even moved, by Conservative MPs. Reports suggest that about 20 Conservative MPs are willing to vote against a government attempt to enshrine “Brexit day” within that law.

To make matters worse for Mrs May, a major Tory donor has publicly criticised Mrs May as a “hopeless” leader of a weak government. Lord Harris of Peckam said that he would prefer a strong Labour to a weak Conservative government.

Generally, as Iain Duncan Smith can testify, criticism from donors tends to represent a rather large flashing light on the political dashboard. Yet, while weak, the prime minster is not necessarily vulnerable.

This is a function both of personalities and of timing. The prime minister’s position is relatively secure partly because of the lack of an obvious alternative popular within the party.

A survey of 550 Conservative local councillors carried out by ComRes in September found support scattered evenly among Jacob Rees-Mogg, Ruth Davidson, Boris Johnson and David Davis.

Johnson soared briefly following his Brexit “manifesto” (or long read, if you prefer) in the Telegraph.

A poll of Conservative Party members carried out for the Times between September 22 and 24 showed that the foreign secretary had 23% per cent of the party’s rank and file backing him (with Ruth Davidson on 19% and Jacob Rees-Mogg on 17%). Being a Brexiteer with an optimistic vision for post-Brexit Britain is clearly a popular stance. However a string of gaffes, ranging from tasteless comments about dead bodies in Libya, accusations of undermining the prime minister, and misjudged comments in front of the foreign affairs committee about the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case led to a collapse in Johnson’s rating among the general public and Conservative voters. And amongst his fellow MPs his standing has arguably never been lower.

And apart from personalities, there is timing. And here, the make up of the parliamentary Conservative Party comes into play. There is a sense among many Conservative backbenchers elected in 2010, 2015 and 2017 that the leadership has failed them. Yet they are wary of an early leadership election for two reasons. First, because they do not want one of the current leadership contenders to win it.

Second, and related, because they don’t want it to be about Brexit. A leadership context before Brexit would unleash a fight over the future relationship with the EU which could be hugely damaging and do nothing for the Conservative brand.

Moreover, pausing for a leadership election would throw the Brexit process itself into chaos. The clock is ticking, and pausing to change prime minister would not help.

Finally, of course, there is Jeremy Corbyn. A new leader elected by MPs and the party membership would face immediate legitimacy problem and demands to call a general election.

And, whatever the fears among some parts of the parliamentary party about the economic, and ultimately political, repercussions of a hard Brexit, many fear the potential impact of Corbyn as prime minister more.

Not for nothing did the prime minister tell her MPs, at a party following the election and immediately before the recess that “it is me or Jeremy Corbyn”.

And so Theresa May carries on in post. Fatally weakened, yet not immediately threatened. She is like Monty Python’s parrot. Nailed to her perch and supported by those with an interest in her not appearing lifeless.

Yet politically lifeless she effectively is. And this has the clearest and most damaging implications when it comes to Brexit.

At every turn, the prime minister defers to the Brexiters in her party. This predated the election. From promising to trigger Article 50 by March of this year to ruling out membership of the single market without even investigating whether some compromise on free movement might be available, she took rash and counterproductive decisions for political reasons.

More recently, the problem seems to have got worse as the prime minister’s position has weakened. The misguided attempt to enshrine Brexit day in law attests to the pressure on her. Prime ministers usually move heaven and earth to avoid their hands being tied.

This one tamely offers up her wrists to the Brexit brigade. Little wonder that in their letter leaked to the Daily Mail, Johnson and Gove could be seen to be plotting to “hijack No 10,” using the prime minister as a useful puppet.

Theresa May is weak, but far from unstable. She is supported on her perch not by fans but by people who see no immediate alternative. It must be a miserable existence. More importantly, it is damaging the country.

By Professor Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe, and author, with Geoffrey Evans, of Brexit and British Politics. This piece originally featured in The Times.


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