Theresa May’s announcement that she plans to serve as Prime Minister for ‘the long term’ has come as rather a surprise to her party. Cabinet ministers and senior backbenchers had hoped that all the talk of her sell-by-date and a leadership contest would have faded in time for the autumn, but this has stirred it up again.
There are two schools of thought in the party as to whether the Prime Minister went into her interview yesterday intending to give a stronger line on whether or not she was going to leave. By and large those who are most unimpressed by the way she has led up to this point think that it was a deliberate move to show authority. Even those who think she was bounced into it believe that the Prime Minister was trying to quash speculation about having a precise leaving date.
More interestingly, though, there are two schools of thought in the party as to whether it is really possible for a Prime Minister who lost seats in an election she had called to go into yet another election. Some senior MPs I’ve spoken to today are totally adamant that ‘this is obviously not going to happen’ because they have permanently lost trust in the Prime Minister who they still see as a ‘disaster’ and ‘totally arrogant’ to be suggesting she might have a second life. But more significantly, there are senior MPs who also think that May could actually prove herself all over again and enjoy a sufficiently good reputation to have confidence that she would lead a successful election campaign the next time around.
Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, tells Coffee House: ‘There is no desire amongst Conservative MPs or the wider party for a leadership election. We know that we have an important and complex job to do and Theresa May deserves our support as she sets about that.’ Similarly Charles Walker, the vice chair of the powerful group of backbenchers, says: ‘Good for her, to be honest. She’s obviously in a better place. I would like nothing more for Theresa May, if she cannot find the affection of the British public, to find admiration and respect. It sounds like she wants to give it a go and I will work hard in every way to support her in that. She’s the Prime Minister: she absolutely deserves to seal the deal with the British public.’
This is very unusual coming from the Tory party, which tends to be a ruthless machine so focused on winning that it permanently keeps a window open in order to defenestrate a leader. But Brady, Walker and other senior members of the 1922 Committee have been absolutely essential in keeping the Prime Minister in place: if they had turned against her in the weeks after the election when ministers were running around like children on a sugar rush in a playground, then May would have had to seriously consider her position. Thanks to their support, she has clearly come back from holiday feeling far more confident.
It will be interesting to see how those senior backbenchers treat other MPs, including ministers, who see this announcement as an excuse to start running around again. There have been critical voices today, including former party Chairman Grant Shapps, who compared May’s statement to Margaret Thatcher’s promise to go ‘on and on’. Others, such as George Freeman, have been working on developing an entirely new offer from the Tories, and won’t take kindly to the leader who sacked them trying to hang on with just a jazzed-up version of her existing offer. Whether the 1922 Committee can keep a lid on these rumblings so that May can get on with things depends very much on whether the wider party really can forgive her.