Despite having to answer questions about whether or not she is a ‘quitter’, Theresa May must be reasonably glad that she’s got a few days’ escape from her domestic agenda while she is visiting China. But being away does mean that she has left her party to stew without her, and it’s not clear that those around her are doing much to calm things down.
Over the past few days, I’ve spoken to a range of Conservative backbenchers and ministers who either privately or publicly hold concerns about the way May is leading (or isn’t, as the case may be). All agree that things are rather critical for the Prime Minister, and have a number of thoughts about how she might survive. But barely any of the MPs I spoke to have had any sort of contact from the Tory whips. This is odd: the whips will be aware from the media if not from private conversations that there are plenty of MPs who are worried. Yet they are not calling around their assigned backbenchers to sound them out on the leadership.
A small number who have either been critical in public or have told large numbers of colleagues that they want May gone have had calls from a whip who has tried to talk them down, but it is striking that there is no organised operation to stop the current turmoil hardening into something more threatening.
Currently, a lot of those MPs who do want a new leader are still unconvinced that they will get one: ‘Oh, she’ll hang on in one way or the other,’says one. ‘She always manages to survive at the last minute while making everything a bit worse.’ Another Tory thinks that there may well be a vote of no confidence, partly as a result of people sending in letters without realising how many Graham Brady already has, but that Theresa May will win it. Her victory will be hollow, as it will be clear to Parliament and the country quite how many Conservatives want their Prime Minister done. If you think the current situation of the Prime Minister being so cautious that she doesn’t want to decide anything, no matter how minor, is bad, then just wait until you have a Prime Minister who has faced a personal revolt from her own colleagues.
But that shouldn’t be the point at which the whips get in touch. If we learned anything from the essay crisis style of government that David Cameron often fell into, it’s that leaving the whipping operation to the last minute never works.