With her party’s power significantly reduced in the commons, and a series of publicity disasters in her wake, can May really survive as Conservative leader until the next general election?
The June 2017 general election left the Conservative party without a parliamentary majority, with a net loss of 22 seats across the country, the biggest loss for the party since the 1997 election. With political pundits on all sides predicting an overwhelming amount of support for the Conservatives, Theresa May called the snap election in order to secure power in commons, allowing for a ‘hard Brexit’ to continue without support needed from the opposition.
Before long, early opinion polls had reversed in favour of the Labour party, and in the end Theresa May’s Conservatives had to reach out to the DUP in order to form a government. Since then, the ‘knives have been out’ for the PM, with frequent speculation on how long she has left, and who could replace her.
The strength of this speculation on May’s fate comes in part from the Conservative’s historically cut-throat attitude to failure, and calculated approach to securing power. Despite Margaret Thatcher delivering three consecutive election victories to the party between 1979 and 1987, she was convinced to resign before her chance to run again after her popularity fell. John Major was swiftly elected in her place, so that the party could regain power before they fell further out of favour with the public.
In 2003, Ian Duncan Smith became an example of how even without a record on failures, the position of Conservative party leader is a wobbly seat. Less than two years in the position, Smith was rounded on by his cabinet and given a vote of confidence, after he was deemed unable to win an election, with a reputation as the ‘quiet man’. This saw the Conservatives enter their fourth leadership election in just eight years.
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And so, perhaps we should look to history for an indication of how long Theresa May has left as prime minister. The Conservatives have a reduced majority, brought on by May’s mistake, and now she fails to defend against the punches that follow. Before we know it, she could be out for the count. These past leadership sagas suggest that May will only be able to cling to her power as long as the Conservatives think that they can hang on to theirs.
A Survation poll released in September showed a five point lead for Labour over the Conservatives, the highest since the general election. The same poll suggested only 54% of Conservative voters would back the PM leading the party into the next election. This swing could provide us with the biggest hint that the PM’s tenure could be coming to an end sooner than many currently predict.
But who would take her place? That depends on whether a pound of flesh from the bench needs to be taken before her resignation. Johnson marches forward as a PR disaster, making him the favourite to get the chop in order to win a brownie from the public, and more importantly, from the international community.
One candidate eyed by many of the party’s younger members is Jacob Rees-Mogg, the backbencher who came up as a potential name not long after the general election. The MP for North East Somerset is generally accepted to be much further to the right than many of his colleagues, and he has gained a lot of media attention for his outspoken views against abortion ‘in any circumstances’. Despite his raised profile, Rees-Mogg continues to deny he wants any part in a leadership election, saying “I think if I threw my hat in the ring, my hat would be thrown back at me pretty quickly.”
Besides these dark horses, there are more prominent figures tipped for power should the opportunity arise. David Davis, previously described as a “safe pair of hands” and the man now charged with the lion’s share of responsibility for Brexit negotiations has the public’s attention already, and could use this to his advantage. Amber Rudd may even have a go, though her anti-Brexit stance is unlikely to serve her well amongst her peers.
All eyes are on the strength of the PM now, and how she handles herself; with each sign of weakness a call to action from those wanting her job. Just yesterday, she was blindsided by a question from LBC’s Iain Dale, who asked her if she would vote for or against Brexit if there was another vote, which she was unable to give a straight answer to.
Blunders like these can be critical now the long knives are out for the prime minister. Brexit is and will remain the theme of her tenure, and so her strength on the subject is critical to her role. Without it, she is floundering alone without any substantial need to keep her in place as leader. Her popularity wanes in comparison to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who continues to repeat that his shadow cabinet is a “government in waiting.”
For now, May will attempt to struggle on as best she can. As her aftermath of her conference speech showed, her supporters will spin what was clearly a PR disaster into a positive, so the question is simply how many of these supporters will stay by her side in the coming months.
Dan Cody is Editor-in-Chief at No Majesty.