The weeks before a cabinet reshuffle are when a Prime Minister is at their most powerful. The threat of the backbench or the lure of promotion can be very useful when it comes to getting MPs to play ball. But as Theresa May is fast discovering, the weeks after a reshuffle – particularly an underwhelming one – can be the most dangerous.
Today, the Sun reports that the recently knighted chair of the 1922 Committee Graham Brady has received almost enough letters (the required number is 48) from MPs to trigger a vote of confidence in May. The paper reports that Brady was ‘ashen-faced’ when he was handed one recently. If he gets only a handful more then a vote of confidence is in the offing and May’s premiership could come to an abrupt end.
So, how real is the threat? It’s clear that Conservative MPs are miserable. Many returned from the Christmas break with newfound optimism only to discover that the Maybot 2018 edition looks a lot like the 2017 model. The reshuffle fuelled speculation that May has no plans to step down soon or pave the way for a successor. Meanwhile, the pause in the Brexit negotiations has meant there has been increased focus on the government’s domestic agenda – or lack there of. Nick Boles – a usually amiable MP – has publicly told the Prime Minister to ‘buck up’ while Nicholas Soames let his feelings be known with the hashtag #dulldulldull.
Despite this, there’s still no consensus in the party that now is the time for May to leave office. There’s a feeling that the Brexit negotiations are at too pivotal a stage and that things just aren’t bad enough to risk what would be an unpredictable and rather bloody leadership contest (for fiction fans, I’ve imagined what that #notdulldulldull leadership contest would like for the i paper this week).
What will worry No 10 about May’s postal problem is that while Downing Street is safe in the comfort that as weak as May is there is no obvious challenger, there is a risk that the Tories stumble into a leadership contest. As one member of government said to me this week, ‘there is not a majority thinking she should go now but there is always a chance the number of letters will slowly build and we’ll get there without planning to’. The letters being sent to Brady are private and it would be hard for any MP to work out how many Brady already had – whether there’s would make the magic number. Today’s story may well be enough to make miserable MPs think twice before firing off a letter of their own. For now, Twitter – not post – is the safest medium for grumpy Tories to let off steam.