Is Theresa May now doomed after her conference speech went so badly wrong? Tory MPs were yesterday so shocked by all the mishaps that it took them a few hours to realise that underneath all the things that weren’t May’s fault – such as the P45 stunt and the set falling apart – were a lot of things that the Prime Minister really was responsible for. The speech was not the bold, re-energising address that May needed to give. It contained pale policies which seemed pale red, not true blue.
There are ministers who see this as an opportunity to move against their leader. There are Boris allies who have recovered their bewilderment at what their man was up to this week sufficiently to start calling privately for a leadership election before Christmas. Steerpike reports that Ed Vaizey has said publicly that it’s difficult to see a way forward under May.
But does this change the fundamentals? Senior backbenchers and ministers I spoke to yesterday think not. One Cabinet minister points out that ‘she is the Maybot no more’ as a result of the way the conference hall found itself willing the Prime Minister on as she persevered with her speech. A lesser politician might have given up.
There is still no one the Tory party can unite around to replace her. Boris Johnson has sufficiently infuriated his colleagues both with his behaviour over Brexit and his comments about Sirte that he is not an uncomplicated option.
But the fundamentals for the party have been that May would take them through Brexit and then go. Most MPs had accepted her statement that she was in this for the long term as a way of retaining what little authority she has rather than a genuine ambition. Now it must be clear that May isn’t genuinely entertaining the delusion that she could fight another election as Tory leader.
If that isn’t made clear then one of the most important pieces of scaffolding keeping the whole thing together – the support of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers – could fall away.
So much of May’s survival after a bad conference is about the scaffolding around her. Many MPs I’ve spoken to since the speech have spoken again about their worry that the team advising the Prime Minister clearly isn’t quite working yet. This is an admission that May is more empty vessel than strong leader, which shows us what the fundamentals need to be if the whole thing isn’t to come crashing down soon: a parliamentary party that accepts it’s safer not to have another leadership contest now and a Prime Minister and Number 10 operation that accepts it really is just trying to get the party out of a mess rather than entertaining any greater delusions of grandeur.