Tomorrow marks a year since Theresa May sat her dejected parliamentary party down and promised that ‘I got us into this mess and I’ll get us out of it’. She was speaking amid the chaos of the snap election that she’d called, and it wasn’t clear whether the Prime Minister was going to be able to form a government, let alone survive as leader for very long. Tonight, she’s still here but still appealing to Conservative MPs for unity as the ‘crunch stage’ of the EU withdrawal bill arrives in the Commons.
The briefing over the weekend did suggest that the Prime Minister was probably going to be ok, though in reality there are still a couple of votes that are going to be, at the very least, rather tight. But this is still a surprising place for May to be in at all: few would really have expected that she’d still have enough authority to be looking at tight votes in the Commons at all.
This is not so much May’s own achievement in party management – we saw last week as ministers erupted in fury that they had been cut out of key documents regarding the Brexit backstop that May does still retain the bad habits she developed at the Home Office of cutting people out of important decisions – as it is an achievement of the party itself. Senior backbenchers in the Conservative party effectively set themselves up as May’s life support machine this time a year ago, and have been ensuring that she can keep going ever since.
In the weeks that followed the Tories’ shock loss of a majority, Cabinet ministers broke into open dissent and private briefings. This could have been the end off the Prime Minister, but for the reaction of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, especially that committee’s chair, Graham Brady, who let it be known to all and sundry that the Cabinet should behave and that the majority of Conservative MPs would support the Prime Minister in sacking anyone who caused her too much trouble.
In reality, of course, the many high profile departures that have happened have not had much to do with which Cabinet ministers have a habit of undermining the Prime Minister: ministers have been remarkably good at bringing about their own demise on a number of unrelated topics. But that early support from Brady and other senior Conservative MPs kept May going through the hardest few months following the election. Without them, she would have been long gone.
This is not a good position for any Prime Minister to be in, though, and the question remains of when the 1922 Committee will turn off the life support machine. There has been another swell in comments about what will happen ‘next time’, but Conservative MPs were muttering darkly about ‘next time’ when David Cameron was Prime Minister and he chose when to leave, albeit having accidentally taken Britain out of the European Union. May accidentally took the Conservatives out of majority government, and is relying on her backbenchers to keep her going. Even though they’re in a united mood this week, they can’t stay that way forever.