How much trouble is Theresa May in? Just three weeks ago, it looked as though the Prime Minister was at her strongest point since the disastrous snap election. Now, the BBC 10 o’clock news is leading on questions about her survival – with reports of irrepairable drift, Brexit rifts. The Sunday papers are filled with a deluge of negative headlines depicting a party out of control – including on-the-record criticism from Conservative MPs. Former minister Theresa Villiers has gone on the airwaves to warn that the Prime Minister could be about to sell a lie on Brexit. What’s more, reports claim that the influx of letters to Graham Brady continues to rise.
Although there is still no obvious successor to May, something has changed in the mood of her party in the past week. After the disappointing reshuffle, MPs have lost patience with the Prime Minister. Over the past few days, the politicians I thought would be saying ‘keep calm and carry on’ are beginning to question whether things could get much worse. The odd thing in all this is that despite the gloom in the party, the polls are still neck-and-neck. The most recent ICM poll put the Tories up by one point:
Westminster voting intention:
CON: 41% (+1)
LAB: 41% (-)
LDEM: 7% (-)
UKIP: 4% (-)
GRN: 3% (-)
via @ICMResearch, 10 – 19 Jan
— Britain Elects (@britainelects) January 26, 2018
There still seems to be a consensus that May should stay for now, with the local elections a crunch point. But even with that, emotions are so high that it’s not impossible that the Tories stumble into a confidence vote. Figures such as Grant Shapps have suggested May should agree an exit date in order to prevent this – but that is something No 10 is very unlikely to agree to.
However, those MPs hoping for a leadership contest sooner rather than later should be careful what they wish for. Conservative MPs may be able to agree that May is not up to the job, but they don’t agree on who would be best-placed to replace her. A leadership contest at this point in the Brexit negotiations could be very messy indeed. It would send a confusing message to Brussels – and most likely lead to more unrest over the referendum result. The number of politicians who would put themselves forward would be very large and the contest would be unpredictable and bruising at a time when the party ought to be preparing for trade negotiations. The Conservatives are stuck between rock and a hard place – the alternative to May could well be worse.