A few weeks ago, Theresa May seemed surprisingly stable as Tory leader, given the mess of the snap election. Her cabinet had finally stopped squabbling about Brexit and Conservative backbenchers were largely backing her to continue. But on the eve of party conference, things don’t look so great.
Firstly, the Cabinet unity has disappeared again. The Prime Minister’s Florence speech opened up a war of bids for her attention from Brexiteers and Brexitsceptics alike, all of whom believed that the Prime Minister is so malleable on policy that she just needs to hear the same thing over and over again before she believes it. When her speech didn’t answer big questions on the UK’s long-term relationship with the European Union, the fighting continued because ministers, including Boris Johnson, felt they still had a case to make for their vision of Brexit.
May might have been tempted to discipline Johnson, who is continuing to cause trouble by laying down yet more red lines on Brexit in today’s Sun. But his very high-stakes gamble of telling the Prime Minister what to do in public seems to have paid off for the time being, according to the latest ConHome survey at least.
So how weak is May? Her ability to regain strength over the summer was less down to the Prime Minister going away on holiday for as long as colleagues could possibly force her to and more to do with the powerful backbenchers in her party, who were furious with anyone speaking out of turn when the party was in such a precarious position. If May loses the confidence of MPs such as Graham Brady, the influential chair of the 1922 committee, then she will find that what little remaining power she has quickly disappears. So this conference needs to be about settling down the wider parliamentary party enough to make it difficult for Cabinet ministers like Boris to cause endless trouble.
Of course, another way of undermining BoJo’s mojo is to answer some of the questions that he is pressuring the government on, but it’s not just Boris who is campaigning heavily here. Other Cabinet ministers may struggle to resist dropping their own thoughts on Brexit into their conference speeches in the coming days, or freelancing at fringes.
All of which means that Tory conference is going to be riven with the very furious tensions that everyone expected the Labour conference, which was rather terrifying happy, to feature instead. But then again, until the exit poll on 8 June, no one expected the Conservative party to be in a minority government as it heads into conference season.