Steve Richards: Theresa May will be out of No 10 before the end of Brexit
Various attempts by the PM to make sense of her new post-election context have failed.
For prime ministers the context in which they lead is much more important than what they say and do. As far as Theresa May is concerned the political background could not be bleaker. She could become the greatest communicator of her age and a strategic visionary of genius. She would still be in trouble because of the wretched inescapable context.
Looking back, May lost her party’s overall majority after leading a hopeless election campaign. Looking ahead few expect her to fight the next campaign as leader. Even May could not commit to being leader at the next election when asked about her future plans in interviews to mark her first anniversary in power.
The combination of the immediate past and a limited future makes May the weakest prime minister in modern times. Her turbulent reign has been compared to Gordon Brown’s, but he had a large overall majority, had every intention of fighting a future election campaign as prime minister and was well qualified to respond to the financial crisis that erupted in 2008. When MPs in the governing party sense a prime minister will not be around for the long term a spell is broken. A prime minister becomes less commanding. Ministers wonder about their future prospects under a different prime minister. Quite a few draw the conclusion they could be the prime minister.
As Tony Blair discovered when he announced a timetable for his departure power begins to move elsewhere immediately. May has made no such announcement and would be unwise to do so. But the assumption that her leadership will be brief, taken with the outcome of an election she did not have to call, is much more weakening than any context that Blair struggled with.
The fragility of May’s position explains why various attempts to make sense of her new post election context have failed. On the Friday after the election May tried to be commanding. Outside Number Ten she concluded a brief statement with the assertion that it was time to get back to work. Her words were greeted with derision bordering on fury, not least by senior Conservative MPs who told her she must be more contrite and express sympathy for colleagues who had lost their seats.
I can understand the thinking behind her inappropriate assertiveness: ‘Let’s appear strong and leaderly…let’s seek fresh momentum.’ Because of the transformed context May appeared thoughtless and delusional. But her attempt in recent days to be more human in her first anniversary interviews have also jarred. There was nothing wrong with what she said. May came over well. But the discordant note was struck because of the contrast between her contrition and her position.
She was asked whether she had cried when she heard the exit poll on election night. In response she confessed that she had shed a tear. Normally these are exchanges with a former leader reflecting on an election that had gone badly wrong in the aftermath of their resignation. To take one example, the BBC’s Eddie Mair asked Ed Miliband recently whether he had cried on the night of the 2015 election. May was having a similar exchange, but she is still prime minister. Her reflections are those of an election loser and yet she is still in the same supposedly mighty job.
Similarly when she has sought to sound more contrite in relation to policy making the conciliatory approach has not worked. Jeremy Corbyn was able to mock her by suggesting there were plenty of good ideas in his manifesto if she wanted to consult him. Once doting newspapers were dismissive. Yet if May had spoken of her determination to press ahead without sounding consensual she would have sounded even more delusional.
May is trapped very early in her prime ministerial career and there is no obvious escape. Nearly all my instincts tell me that she will survive at least until March 2017 when the Brexit deadline is reached. Prime ministers tend to keep going however much the media and MPs speculate about their imminent demise.
After the pound fell out of the ERM in September 1992 John Major went through various forms of political hell but remained as Prime minister for nearly another five years. Gordon Brown survived several attempted coups to lead his party at the 2010 general election. In 1968 Harold Wilson was forced to declare amidst feverish rumours about his leadership “You may be wondering what’s been going on. I’ll tell you what’s going on. I’m going on.” Wilson had wit, an important political weapon that May lacks. By 1968 he had also won two elections. He lasted as leader for another eight years.
There is an additional reason for caution when assessing May’s fragility. Tory MPs, from ministers downward, are still in a state of bewildered shock. As one minister put it to me “Until the exit poll we assumed we would be in power for the next fifteen years. Now we don’t know whether we can make it to October”. The sudden shift in a party’s prospects leaves Conservative MPs wondering what the heck to do about it. They are far from sure of the answer. Although there will be many headlines about May’s future over the summer and even more in the build up to the Conservative conference the truth is that there is no organised conspiracy on behalf of any other candidate. The mood is more feverish than resolute at this phase.
Even so I disown my instincts. I cannot see how May can lead her party up the thorny mountainous path of Brexit. She will continue to try to find some space on the political stage. There will be an assertion of prime ministerial energy in September, the start of the political year that offers hope to prime ministers that have suffered traumas in the summer, hope that is never met. Many of her advisers will have sleepless nights preparing May for the party conference, the TV interviews, the speech. She may well rise to these demands.
But the deadly context does not change and cannot change. She lost a majority at the last election and will not fight the next one. The only escape is a speedy departure from Number Ten. Of course a successor will lead in the same nightmarish context of a hung parliament, but he or she will not have been culpable for the last election and will have every intention of leading the party into the next one.
There will be no early general election because no Conservative prime minister could risk holding one, but I will be surprised if May is still in Number Ten by March 2019 when the UK is supposed to have left the EU. It is far from clear whether a successor would be any better or what form a change of prime minister would take but the context is too dark and unyielding for May to rule for very long in this parliament.
Steve Richards' book The Rise of the Outsiders is published by Atlantic this month.
Picture by: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images.