What on earth is Theresa May up to? The Prime Minister seemed to have successfully calmed things down in the Tory party following her disastrous snap election. But now she has thrown everything wide open again by telling reporters that she would like to fight the next election and that she is her ‘for the long term’.
The ‘do you want to fight the next election’ question is a tricky one for Prime Ministers to answer. Say ‘no’ and you become a lame duck. Normally saying ‘yes’ makes more sense, even if you’re secretly planning to scarper before there is another campaign. But May had already cast herself as a lame duck, albeit one who was very keen to serve and clear up the mess she’d made for as long as was necessary. One of her best moves was to tell the Conservative 1922 Committee straight after the election that ‘I got us into this mess and I’ll get us out’ and that she would serve ‘as long as you want me to’. This made her appear contrite and honourable, rather than someone in denial about the size of the mistake they had made.
As I wrote this week’s cover piece on May’s comeback plan, I was struck by how many Conservatives seemed to base their optimism about the next few years being reasonably peaceful on the certainty that the Prime Minister would go shortly after the Brexit negotiations. They were confident that she was in her job until then, but most said that the turmoil in the party had calmed down because anyone tempted to move against her had no reason to do so: May had already made clear she was going to go anyway. What’s the point of moving against someone who is already on their way out?
Now the temptation is there again for ministers to try to undermine someone who actually quite fancies hanging around for a bit. And can May sack them if they start kicking off? Senior Tories and the Prime Minister’s allies are very clear that she has the support on the backbenches and the authority to carry out a reshuffle when she wants to. But that was again based on the knowledge that the Prime Minister wasn’t going to stay Prime Minister for very long, so what could an angry minister really do to harm her?
One Cabinet minister suggested an interesting counterpoint to this, though. He thought that the longer May stayed in office, the longer he and his ministerial colleagues had guaranteed jobs. This now makes much more sense, for May does not have enough political capital to spend on both trying to stay and moving ministers. If she wants to stay, then she’ll probably have to stop plotting a reshuffle. But the ministers who she can’t move will still feel able to undermine her. So she could remain a lame duck Prime Minister, unable to achieve what she wants, but just for a little bit longer than everyone had expected.