ASKED in Japan whether she intends to stand down as leader of the Conservative Party in 2019 Theresa May replied that, on the contrary, she plans to lead her party into the next election, which, according to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, will occur in 2022. Her answer sent gales of despair through the Conservative Party, gusts of joy through Labour, and blasts of amazement through the commentariat. But what does it actually mean?
Not much, is the short answer. She probably answered as she did for the sake of convenience. Two of her predecessors, Tony Blair and David Cameron, created rods for their own backs by setting dates for their departure. Better to make an unrealistic claim (“I hope to go on and on,” Margaret Thatcher said) than to name your sell-by date and give your fellow politicians yet another excuse to manoeuvre for the succession.
But even if she’s so deluded as to believe that she’s the right person to lead the Conservatives into the next election, the choice isn’t hers to make. The decision will be made by her parliamentary party—particularly by the powerful 1922 Committee—and they’re no more likely to choose Mrs May than Bill Cash. Remember that this is a woman who called an election that she didn’t need to call, only to turn a majority government into a minority one; who blew a 27-point lead in the opinion polls; who almost lost to an ageing leftist who has never held high office; and who, as a campaigner, doesn’t seem to be able to explain her case, let alone enthuse a crowd. Mrs May has no more chance of leading the Tories into the next election than Jacob Rees-Mogg.
So what is going on here? Mrs May is planning for a big push to reassert her power as prime minister. This doesn’t mean staying on to fight the next general election. But it does mean making the best of her position as an interim prime minister. Over the past few months the Tory party has been so convulsed by internal leadership struggles—by briefings and counter-briefings, rhetorical acid-attacks and counter-attacks—that it has sometimes seemed incapable of governing.
Weak though she is, Mrs May has a chance of reasserting some sort of order. The party is beginning to realise that it may be doing itself irreparable harm. The British electorate doesn’t elect or re-elect divided parties. The Tories are also beginning to revisit the reason why they chose Mrs May in the first place: she may not be perfect, but she’s better than the alternatives. The prime minister conveniently straddles the biggest divide in the party, over Brexit. She’s tough on crime but relatively liberal on social values. She may not have many friends but she doesn’t have many enemies either.
At the moment the party seems to be channelling most of its energies into destroying Mrs May’s potential rivals. The past week has seen a tsunami of articles denouncing Boris Johnson, the grassroots’ favourite, as an exploded volcano, a fatuous fool and an incompetent pipsqueak, who is not taken seriously either by the Trump White House or the chancelleries of Europe. Mrs May’s chances of survival probably depend less on elevating her own status, which will be almost impossible after the debacle of the election, but by destroying all potential rivals, which is wonderful for journalists, eager for acid-laced copy, but terrible for the future of the Conservative Party.
The other reason why Mrs May has a good chance of surviving for the time being is that the party has more or less decided that it needs to skip a generation. None of the current lot is up to snuff for various reasons. But the middle ranks of the party are full of highly talented people from a wide variety of social and ethnic backgrounds: Rishi Sunak, MP for Richmond, Yorkshire, and a successful entrepreneur who also happens to be married to the daughter of one of the richest men in India; Kwasi Kwarteng, MP for Spelthorne and a talented historian; Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, and a man who has already enjoyed successful careers in the army, intelligence services and academia; and Ruth Davidson, head of the Scottish Tory party and the great hope in the north. One sign of things to come is that Tom Tugendhat, a former army officer and MP for Tonbridge and Mailing, who has only been an MP since 2015, beat the incumbent, Crispin Blunt, for the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
The Tory party is thus in a more peculiar position than most people imagine: it not only has a caretaker prime minister but also a collection of caretaker cabinet members (such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Liam Fox) who are only being held in place by factional hatred. At the same time it also has a large cohort of able younger people who are knocking on the door of power.
The biggest danger for Mrs May is that she will stick with her cabinet of caretakers rather than give younger talent its due. Getting rid of Mr Johnson, for example, and replacing him with a younger talent would undoubtedly be a good thing for Britain’s foreign policy, but it would disturb the balance of power in the cabinet and give Mr Johnson a licence to make mischief or even bring down the government.
Keeping these caretakers in place will not only deprive the government of new talent. It will also add more heat to the pressure-cooker of the Tory party. For the past few months Britain has been entertained (and appalled) by in-fighting in the cabinet. In the longer term the danger is that talented younger Tories will no longer be willing to put up with being held back by an older generation that, for the most part, has failed to prove itself worthy of office, let alone indispensable for Britain’s future.
Mrs May’s biggest test in the short-term is to reassert her power in order to stop her party from tearing itself apart. Her biggest test in the long-term is to prepare the ground for the next generation of leaders—that is, by bringing fresh talent into the upper ranks of government and helping the party to choose somebody who can credibly lead the party into the next election.
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