Outrageous good fortune smiles once again on Theresa May | Andrew Rawnsley

Terrible as things are for the Tories, the cabinet is too paralysed by fear to move against the prime minister

Theresa May is a very lucky politician. Yes, really. Her career has been kissed with outrageous fortune. She was promoted to home secretary in the coalition government because Nick Clegg turned down the job and George Osborne – here’s a lovely irony – told David Cameron that it would serve them to have a dispensable woman. She lucked into being prime minister because she was the only candidate left standing when all her rivals ate each other in an orgy of Tory cannibalism. Then she wiped out her majority with a snap election that she didn’t have to call, but her colleagues hesitated to punish that debacle in the traditional way because they feared that bad could be followed by worse.

Good fortune smiled on her again at the Tory conference in Manchester. Whatever impression you may have got from media coverage of her speech, the accidental prime minister got lucky again. That luck came in three parts. The prankster who managed to get to the conference stage to present her with a mock P45. Her voice creaking, croaking and then cracking up altogether. Letters dropping off the slogan behind her was the final indignity of the most presentationally calamitous conference speech anyone can recall.

For the most exquisitely apposite metaphor for what has happened to her premiership, you couldn’t beat the spectacle of Mrs May gulping water as the stage set fell apart. Yet I contend that she was rather lucky. She was fortunate because everyone focused on the presentational disasters rather than the content of the speech. This was devoid of what her demoralised party required from their leader. She answered the demand for a transformative vision that revived their prospects with a tired idea about the “British Dream”, a tangle of confused arguments and uninspiring, small-bore policy announcements.

Discussing her position with Tory MPs of many different factions and flavours, a word that comes up a lot is “unsustainable”. They know that they need a renewing reboot as a party and they know that she can’t do it. Even if she had the ideas, she doesn’t have the authority. Even if she had the authority, she doesn’t have the ideas. At the same time, most of them can’t see a safe route of escape from what one of their number calls this “deep and dark hole that we are in”.

Grant Shapps has an idea. If she won’t jump, she will have to be putsched. The former party chairman has been roundly abused by other Tories for collecting names of MPs willing to tell her to go, but if it wasn’t him trying to organise an assassination, it would be someone else. “Shapps is not the cause of this,” remarks one of his colleagues. “He’s the symptom of it.” To trigger a vote of no confidence, Mr Shapps has to persuade 47 other Tory MPs to join him in demanding one. There are multiples of that number who have heads in hands about what is happening to their party. Yet Mr Shapps is struggling to turn the despair among his colleagues into action to remedy it.

One reason that Tory MPs continue to dither is their terror of being plunged into a vicious and chaotic civil war. This fear runs through even those Conservative MPs who think Mrs May should have been gone the day after the election. “It is in the interests of the party and the country that she does go, but the dangers of forcing her out are very serious,” argues a former cabinet minister. “Pictures of her leaving Number 10 in tears would be absolutely toxic for us.” An especially diabolical scenario occurs to some of them. Mrs May could fight a confidence vote and narrowly win it. She would then be glued in place, but with her authority even more shredded.

Plots to remove her are also stalling on the lack of consensus about the succession. Boris Johnson would probably do well if his name went before the Tory membership, but first he’d have to get into the final two and that is decided by Conservative MPs. The foreign secretary has many enemies burning with a determination to stop that happening. In Manchester, cabinet ministers were almost queuing up to tell me that his disruptive and attention-seeking behaviour had become intolerable. Some more or less openly suggested that he should be sacked.

Amber Rudd had a good conference. She did herself no harm when she was seen urging her cabinet colleagues to their feet to give covering applause while Mrs May tried to recover her voice. The home secretary would very much like to be prime minister, but she also and correctly calculates that the time is not ripe. Her slender majority in Hastings and Rye might be a solvable difficulty, but only if she could be switched into a safer seat, a hazardous parachute jump. Another handicap is that she would be seen as the candidate of a Cameronian restoration. Her biggest problem is that she was a prominent Remainer and the ultimate selectorate, the membership of the Tory party, is extremely Brexity. So when Ms Rudd says she wants Mrs May to stay put at Number 10, the home secretary is being sincere and serving her own ambitions because she needs a contest to happen the other side of Brexit.

Philip Hammond has been touted as a “safe pair of hands”. As once was Mrs May and look where that landed the Tory party. Having had recent experience of an election flop because they chose a leader who couldn’t do retail politics, it would be quite the gamble for the Tories to replace Mrs May with a man whose Treasury officials have given him the ironically intended nickname of “Box Office”.

There is one senior cabinet member who would be best suited by an early vacancy. That is David Davis. He is a Brexiter who has demonstrated sufficient pragmatism that he might attract backing from some Tory Remainers. He does well in polls of activists. Unlike Boris, he does not provoke his cabinet colleagues to spit his name with venom. Time is his enemy. If there is to be a successful conclusion of the Brexit negotiations, then they will involve compromises that many Tories will find painful. Mr Davis will be the public face of concessions to the EU that will enrage sections of his party. He needs a contest before that happens and yet he cannot give the slightest impression that he is scheming to supplant the prime minister. “David won’t do anything proactive. He’ll take no part in anything,” says one of his allies with a note of regret. “He likes her and she brought him back into cabinet.”

One manifestation of Tory desperation is the experimentation with some wilder ideas. Given how unpopular they are with younger generations, it is not self-evident that they will find the answer to their problems in a Bentley-driving Old Etonian, whose attitudes on issues of personal freedom were becoming dated in the 1950s. Jacob Rees-Mogg drawled to one conference fringe meeting: “I’m sorry to say I was young once. I wasn’t very good at it, but I was technically a youth.” Whatever he says, of course he wants to be leader. I heard him commend Jeremy Corbyn as an example of how far you can go by being “authentic” and having “clear principles”. Even the dimmest Tory activist present could deduce the conclusion he wanted them to draw. His fellow MPs would be highly unlikely to let him get into the final stage of a leadership contest, but the swooning over “the Mogg” by Tory activists does illustrate what more moderate Conservatives are up against.

It is an interesting question whether Conservative members are ready to be led by Ruth Davidson, a kick-boxing lesbian from Scotland.
It is an interesting question whether Conservative members are ready to be led by Ruth Davidson, a kick-boxing lesbian from Scotland. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Liberal Tories are yearning to get Ruth Davidson into the mix. The leader of the Scottish Tories is funny, a fighter and she can make Tory arguments in attractive ways. Her speech was a rare moment of fizz at a torpid conference. The biggest barrier to Ms Davidson getting to Number 10, I often hear it said, is that she sits in the wrong parliament. Actually, there are bigger ones. Her friends will agree that it is an interesting question whether Conservative members, the bulk of whom are Brexit-hungry English pensioners, are ready to be led by a kick-boxing lesbian from Scotland who was a passionate campaigner for Remain. She has done an impressive job reviving the Tories in Scotland, but she has never wielded any power. She is an effervescent opposition leader; she is utterly unproved as a leader in government.

So the alternatives to Mrs May who are ready don’t look right and those that might be right aren’t ready. Many covet the crown, but none seems able or willing to strike for the throne. That leaves one other way out of this grisly stalemate, which would be for Mrs May to be guided to her own conclusion that she needs to go. Some Tory MPs speculate that Philip May might “do a Denis”. Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister after her husband told her “give it up, love”. Those who know their Tory history will recall that this happened only after Mrs Thatcher had failed to win convincingly when challenged by Michael Heseltine and then been told her time was up by most of the cabinet. There is no sign of a Heseltine in the contemporary Tory party and the cabinet aren’t ready to act. Mrs May, unlike her country, continues to be very lucky.


Andrew Rawnsley

The GuardianTramp

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