How can Theresa May regain the confidence of the 117 Tory MPs who voted against her leadership? A big part of May’s pitch to her party on Wednesday night was that she would repair relations with the DUP – after the confidence and supply agreement broke down over the backstop. One idea now gaining momentum with senior Conservatives of how to do that is to dump Karen Bradley as Northern Ireland secretary, as part of a mini-reshuffle to show May is listening to MPs’ concerns.
After the Prime Minister limped home in Wednesday’s confidence vote, there is deep unrest over May’s leadership. Rather than quash the Brexit rebels, it’s become clear that the concern over her premiership goes beyond the European Research Group of Eurosceptic MPs. One of the big causes of concern is the fact the party has no working majority now that relations have hit an all time low with the DUP. There’s a feeling that No.10 have mishandled matters here – and made the disagreement more terse than it needed to be.
Senior Conservative figures are arguing that one of the way’s to fix this and get the party’s confidence and supply agreement with the DUP operational again is to change the team handling the DUP. The DUP feel as though they have been disrespected and ignored by the current operation. The relationship between Arlene Foster’s party and Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley is particularly strained. ‘It’s irreparable,’ explains a government source. As a result, a growing number of MPs want to see Bradley moved from her brief. ‘It would go some way to mending relations,’ explains a senior Tory. While the main issue is the Brexit position, the thinking is that having someone in a key post who could start a fresh dialogue with the DUP would be helpful to the bigger picture. In the meantime, Bradley’s colleague David Lidington is seen as a safer pair of hands to deal with the DUP – but this relationship can hardly be described as thriving.
So, will a mini reshuffle occur? Brexiteer MPs would certainly like Philip Hammond sacked after he suggested they were extremists. That seems unlikely. But if May wants to show her MPs that she really is in listening mode, there are a few positions she could refresh without a risking a mass backlash.