Sometimes crises end simply because all of the participants are exhausted. Essentially, this is what has happened with the post-election Tory leadership crisis. No one has the energy for a fight, so Theresa May carries on as Prime Minister. Conservative MPs say it is now almost certain that she will make it to the summer break and will still be in place at party conference.
If the coronation of a new leader could be arranged, things would be very different. But it can’t be. From the great offices of state down, the Tories are simply too split – over both policy and personnel – for the succession to be resolved without a contest. A Cabinet whose Chancellor flies to Germany to attack the Foreign Secretary, as Philip Hammond did this week, is not one that is about to organise a seamless transfer of power.
The prospect of a leadership contest scares thoughtful Tories. It isn’t just the risk of a second general election putting Prime Minister Corbyn into No 10 — the greater fear is the divisions it would expose over Europe, the issue that has divided the Tories more than any other over the last 40 years. Any leadership contest would, inevitably, turn into a debate about what the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU should be. With Article 50 already triggered, there could be no fudging: the candidates would have to give clear answers. But a leadership contest that was defined by the European question could split the Tories for good.
These facts of political life are not going to change between now and Brexit, which makes an increasing number of Tories think that keeping May in place is the least worst option. It would minimise party splits over Brexit and leave her to absorb the political angst unleashed by the deal. ‘The last four Tory prime ministers have been destroyed by Europe. Don’t waste a fifth one on it,’ pleads one experienced party operative.
The ministerial backers of established candidates Amber Rudd and Boris Johnson think they will do better post-Brexit, while any outside challengers will find their lack of experience less of a problem if these complex negotiations are over before a contest starts.
This all points to Mrs May staying on at No 10 longer than expected. As one Secretary of State notes: ‘Every week that passes makes her slightly safer.’ After all, as the Brexit talks go on, it will become logistically more difficult to remove the Prime Minister.
There are obvious moments of vulnerability for her. Party conference is one; Tory activists are furious about the way the majority was thrown away. Another is the autumn Budget, which will have to find money for the National Insurance U-turn in the last parliament, the DUP deal and the general easing of ‘austerity’ that a growing number of Tory MPs are demanding. But the party might just choose the path of least resistance and carry on with May. Even if she does stagger on to the end of the Brexit talks, the debate about who — and what — should succeed her will carry on. All the leading candidates have their flaws, meaning that the discussion is far broader than usual.
The young Turks of 2010 are busy making the case for skipping a generation. They argue that no one in the front rank of the cabinet is the transformative candidate that the Tories need to address their problem with the young and the middle-aged and defeat Jeremy Corbyn. So, they claim, the net must be cast wider. They argue that having run a department is less important than the ability to take the argument to Corbyn and to burst his bubble.
Ironically, one Tory who would relish taking part in these conversations has taken himself off the field of play. George Osborne quitting parliament to edit the Evening Standard has proved almost as big a misjudgment as Theresa May’s decision to call an early election. If he had shown some patience and stayed put, May would have had to bring him back into the Cabinet after the election disaster, as she did Michael Gove. Osborne would be at the centre of events again. His exit from parliament, though, reveals something important about the character of contemporary politicians. As one Tory remarked to me at the time, his behaviour post-referendum treated politics ‘like it was a Twenty20 match, frantically swinging away’, when it is more akin to a Test Match, requiring plenty of patience. Those Tories thinking about taking a run at the top job despite a lack of ministerial experience are displaying the same failing.
The next Tory leader will face an awe-inspiring set of challenges. They will have to win an election soon after Brexit, which will be a disruptive event. On top of this, the party will, possibly, have been in power for more than a decade but limited in what it can achieve by budgetary and parliamentary constraints. (The DUP deal may keep the Tories in power, but it is now harder to argue that things can’t be done because there’s no money when large sums have been found for Northern Ireland.) To overcome these obstacles, the Tories will need a leader who connects with the public. This is no time for a technocrat.
The party has two politicians with this quality right now: Ruth Davidson and Boris Johnson. Davidson, however, won’t be enticed to Westminster until she feels her job in Scotland is done, which will not be for many years. Johnson has to prove that he has a post-referendum second act in him.
So the Tories urgently need to find more figures with ‘cut-through’. To this end, the last service that May should offer her party is one that Michael Howard performed in 2005. She should, in time, reshuffle her team to give everyone who will run for leader a serious frontline job. This would help the party to find out how good possible contenders such as Dominic Raab and Damian Hinds really are.
Some wonder whether Mrs May will want to soldier on. But if she were to go now she’d be regarded as the worst Prime Minister since Anthony Eden. If she carries on, she has a chance to leave behind a better legacy for herself as well as her party.
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