If Britain crashes out of the EU with no deal and the Conservatives plunge to a defeat against Labour in a subsequent general election, Theresa May, not without reason, will take the blame. But the blame will not be all hers. William Hague will deserve a fair slice of it as well.
It has become quite clear that May is not going to achieve a decent deal. The task is beyond her. She does not have the imagination to know where to go next, and she has already painted herself into a corner. She staked her entire authority on her Chequers plan – a solution which, it soon became clear, had virtually no support other than that of May herself. And yet she has ploughed on for three wretched months, demanding loyalty which she has been granted only grudgingly even by the non-troublemakers in her Cabinet.
She needs to go – and quickly. Yet how? The Conservative party does not have a mechanism for changing leaders in a hurry. Instead, it has a leadership election process which was designed – by William Hague after he becameYo leader in 1997 –when the Tories were deep in opposition and perhaps could not imagine that one day they would be in power again. It is a system which works well enough in opposition but is utterly incapable of achieving what the party and country needs when the Conservatives are in power and the country is in a crisis.
So if May is pushed tomorrow – or even resigns of her own free will – Tory MPs would have to go through several rounds of voting among themselves before narrowing it down to a choice of two. Those two names would then go on a ballot paper to be put to all Conservative party members. The whole process would take weeks – eight weeks was the projected length of the election when Theresa May became leader in 2016. On that occasion, of course, Andrea Leadsom saved party and country from the misery of it all by withdrawing from the contest, but there is no guarantee that the same would happen in another contest. On the contrary, it is all too easy to imagine embittered remain and leave camps bedding down for a long fight – while all negotiations with Brussels were suspended.
And what if the government were to lose a vote of no confidence – an all-too likely scenario if we end up with any kind of deal which involves putting a border down in the Irish Sea and the DUP ends its confidence and supply agreement? The Conservatives would have to go into the ensuing election with Theresa May at the helm – a horribly weak starting point from which they would be unlikely to win.
What the Conservatives need is a mechanism for changing the leadership in days – either one which involves only MPs or is held via an electronic vote from party members after an online hustings. Trouble is, such a system is not going to emerge out of thin air, in time to depose Mrs May. The Tories really are in a horribly tight spot – the result of William Hague’s failure, 20 years ago, to foresee a day when the party would be in government and in a crisis.