Is Theresa May on manoeuvres?

Is Theresa May on manoeuvres?

If so, what does it say about the Tories’ election prospects?

When a party is polling poorly or suffering electoral reverses, it follows almost inevitably that its leader will be the subject of speculation as to his or her future.  By the same token, it also follows that the leader’s colleagues – the most likely successors – will also be the subject of that same speculation, particularly when one of them enjoys a moment in the limelight.

To that end, what are we to make of Theresa May’s wide-ranging speech this week, which touched many bases with the party faithful?  Was it a deliberate attempt to position her as an alternative to the prime minister, and in so doing, undermine him?  Or was it simply a restatement of core Tory beliefs, which the PM – as the leader of a coalition – cannot easily make without highlighting his own inability to fully implement those principles?

Some have suggested that it’s a move in the apparent game to unseat the PM via a vote of No Confidence.  I don’t buy that.  It’s unlikely that there be such a vote and even less likely that it will succeed.  The reality is that whoever is Conservative leader will have to deal with the existing parliamentary arithmetic and as such either has to work closely with the Lib Dems or face being repeated voted down.  Neither option would satisfy those keen for more right-wing policies but they’re the only options available.  What, then, would be the point of changing a leader who still polls ahead of his party?

If there is any game-playing going on, it’s about the situation after 2015, not before it.  Despite Ed Miliband’s own numbers not being anything much to write home about either, the dynamics of the parliament are increasingly favourable to Labour.  Apart from displaying competence in office, there’s not much positive the Conservatives can do to win back lost voters (though the effect of competence, particularly on the economy, should not be understated).  The two coalition parties might be distancing themselves from each other but that doesn’t mean they can turn the rhetoric into action, other than by blocking the initiatives of their nominal partner.

Meanwhile, UKIP continue to win over the support of discontented, both in opinion polls and actual elections.  If that continues, it will be extremely difficult to keep Farage out of the 2015 leadership debates.  It’s true that UKIP have no MPs at the moment – though by-elections or defections may yet change that – but if they continue to poll in the same range as the Lib Dems, particularly off the back of a Euroelection they can expect to poll extremely strongly in and may even win, there’ll be a mighty uproar if they’re excluded.  Either way, it could make them the story of the campaign and solidify their 10% – something which would surely condemn the Conservatives to opposition.

That scenario might involve a bit of crystal ball gazing but it’s well worth thinking about, as well as what might prevent it.  At the moment, I can’t really see any credible initiative that would result in something other than a detour ending at the same point.

    If others are reaching the same conclusions, it makes sense for them to be loyally preparing their platform for a 2015 Tory leadership contest; preparations which can be ambiguously framed for now as contributing to the party’s platform for majority government. 

One point on form: Home Secretaries rarely become Prime Minister.  Of the more than forty in the 20th century, only two reached Number Ten: Churchill and Callaghan.  Both did so after a period out of office and were in their mid-sixties on being appointed PM.  Theresa May will be 63 in May 2020.

David Herdson

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