Theresa May: A Prime Minister on life support

Talk of a leadership election abounds and the party conference season descends.

Party consiglieri whisper that it’s a “make or break” week for the Prime Minister and all eyes are on the all-important leader’s speech.

That’s right. It’s 1969 and Harold Wilson is leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister. He addresses the leadership questions: “I know what is going on” he says, impishly surveying the room. “I am going on.”

Almost instantly his leadership was saved, by a single quip.

But then, he got his words out.

It should never have even mattered.

Had Theresa May won a majority of 100, if the Brexit negotiations were going well, if the vultures weren’t circling, this week, as excruciating as it was, Theresa May’s cough and set malfunction would not have been a problem.

But it was a torrid week at the end of an even more torrid six months, leaving every pundit, politician and pollster in Westminster wondering: how long can she last?

Theresa May

Video:Theresa May’s keynote speech in full Part One

She has two strong cards left in her much-depleted deck.

The first is that most Tory MPs feel that it would not only appear ridiculous but be actively damaging to the Brexit process to dispatch a Prime Minister before at least a significant portion of the negotiations are complete.

Interestingly though, this week has changed something. It has added the “significant portion” bit of that sentence.

Before this week, most Tory MPs thought that it would be most sensible for the PM to stay until 2019, when Britain leaves the EU and the negotiations are complete.

I’ve detected a significant change in tone over the weekend. Lots of Conservative MPs are talking about her now only completing part of it, perhaps securing a transition deal (as she outlined in her Florence speech) and then leaving the second part (negotiating an ongoing trade relationship) to someone else.

Theresa May holds up a cough sweet after suffering a coughing fit whilst addressing the Conservative Party conference

Video:Theresa May’s keynote speech in full Part Two

Secondly, the PM still has the power to hire and fire.

It wasn’t only May who failed to impress at party conference. The feeling amongst activists was that much of the Cabinet appeared tired and jaded, with few if any sparkling performances.

There’s a great appetite to rejuvenate the Conservative brand through fresh ideas and new faces. Many MPs would like May to fulfil a near caretaker role, ditching the deadwood and bringing forward 2015 and 2017 MPs into the top ranks of government.

It suits those MPs (and they are now a very significant portion of the parliamentary party) for May to stay on for a while.

If she went now, one of the old praetorian guard would have to take over – a Johnson, a Davis, a Hammond. Far better to keep May in place, get cabinet experience and then go for the top job in a year or so: young cardinals like old popes.

Sir Michael Fallon, Amber Rudd, Boris Johnson, Philip Hammond and David Davis listen to the PM during the election campaign
Image:A Johnson, a Hammond, a Davis… who would replace Theresa May?

But however much those “young Turks” might like May to hang around, it may soon be out of her hands. She may have (just) survived the conference season but doing so came at a cost: her last life. She is one move – a scandal, a crisis bungled, a situation misjudged – away from being politically dead. And the political landscape is riddled with landmines.

There’s Brexit and the eight related bills making their way through Parliament, all of which are subject to nefarious amendments from trouble-making MPs on the opposition and Government benches (not to mention the Lords).

There’s the upcoming energy bill: a signature domestic initiative with which many free-marketeer Tory MPs are uncomfortable because it imposes a statist energy cap on a privatised industry and worse, looks suspiciously like an Ed Miliband idea.

Any significant rebellion on the Conservative side could wound the Prime Minister beyond repair.

And the reshuffle could disastrously backfire.

For every loyalty bought with a 50 pieces of silver in the form of a place around the Cabinet table, there is a cost. A dispatched and sullen minister is free to roam on the backbenches and to cause trouble, none more so than Johnson.

Theresa May gives a speech in Complesso Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy

Video:The PM’s Brexit speech highlights

In allowing speculation to build up over the weekend that she might move him, May is in an invidious position. Move him and create a blonde-mopped king over the water. Don’t move him and be a pusillanimous pansy and prove once again, just how feeble she’s become.

Any of these would try a strong Prime Minister with a solid majority. She could anticipate them arising and that’s exactly why she called an election to try and get one. A Prime Minister on life support could be brought down by any one of them.

Maybe the Prime Minister could do worse to look back to old Harold Wilson for inspiration. He led a minority government. He had huge egos to manage in his Cabinet. And he was perhaps the only Prime Minister in our history who, leading a divided party, successfully managed to navigate the issue of Europe.

On the other side of the ledger, three Tory prime ministers in a row have been brought down over the subject. May is a hair’s breadth away from being the fourth.

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Nathan Spackman

Nathan is the Operations Manager at Bro Radio. You'll occasionally find him with our street team and hosting at local events as well as presenting our facebook live videos.