Her party will give her Brexit but not another election
Theresa May might be on the other side of the world but she can no doubt still hear the cacophony of silence from her cabinet colleagues in support of her comment stating her desire to lead the Conservatives into the next election. As so often, what is not said is more revealing than what is.
To be fair, the question of whether a leader intends to stand down within a specified timeframe is always a difficult one. Say yes and you make yourself a lame duck; say no and it not only looks like hubris and entitlement but can also focus opposition as MPs see both their personal and their party’s futures being damaged; dodge the question and you risk the worst of both worlds.
In this case, however, there was an additional factor in play: the speculation that she would stand down in 2019. That was something that she clearly, and rightly, wanted to squash. Not only would such an expectation undermine her own position in her party but it’d undermine her position in the EU negotiations, which must ultimately come to European Council level.
And Europe, as so often, holds the key to the party’s immediate future. Later this month, we will be one-quarter of the way through the Article 50 period. Talks are, unsurprisingly, making little progress with both sides struggling to understand the language the other is speaking (and often, not really trying). The clock is indeed ticking and a timescale already tight may now already be unachievable.
This kicks off two games, in addition to the one already underway in the talks. The first is about a deferral of Brexit Day. This is a touchy subject because the one really clear way to actually prevent Brexit at all is an indefinite deferral of the Day (or, at least, a deferral to such a distant point that it allows a treaty revision to permit the UK to stay in). Tories and the DUP will also be well aware that the longer a deferral, the closer the negotiations run to the next election and the greater the risk of Labour taking over and completing them. The EU will also be aware of this. Consequently, while the government might agree to a short extension of 12-18 months, it’s unlikely to request or accept anything longer.
The second, related game is about blame. Who gets it if talks should break down or run out of time. On that score, British media, politicians and public will inevitably revert to their default prejudices unless there’s strong evidence to the contrary. In essence, the default majority position will be that it’s unreasonable foreigner to blame unless the government has clearly screwed it up (there will of course be a sizable and no doubt vocal minority for whom a Tory government could do no right but this isn’t about them; it’s about those whose votes are up for grabs).
The one thing that could demonstrate to the public more than anything that a breakdown or a bad deal was the government’s fault would be infighting either within the cabinet or within the wider parliamentary Conservative Party. It is perhaps in the awareness of this that despite indifferent polling and slow going in Brussels, there’s been a marked lack of sounding off, either from disgruntled backbenchers or from ‘friends’ of ministers. That’s not to say there hasn’t been anything of the sort but the level’s been far lower than might have been expected. After all, this is a story the media knows well, and knows who to go to for a juicy quote.
Can that discipline hold as negotiations get more intense? Can it stick to its red lines and compromise enough elsewhere to deliver a deal? That remains to be seen, though it’s extremely likely that there won’t be any big bust-up at this year’s Tory conference and quite possibly not next year’s either. Crunch time will come between October 2018 and March 2019 – which is why it was so essential for May to retain such authority as she has.
That authority though was deeply damaged by the election and although she’s recovered somewhat since – not least because although she’s a rotten election campaigner, she’s a capable prime minister – she remains damaged goods.
Events may yet turn something up to give her a genuine second chance but as things stand, once the hard work of Brexit is done (and when it is done, it will be at best a tolerable deal, at worst an intolerable one and just possibly, no deal at all; what it won’t be is a triumph), she’ll have served her purpose.
The Tory Party is sentimental but what it doesn’t do (or only rarely, when its judgement is off), is allow sentiment to get in the way of winning. By 2020 or 2021 (depending on Brexit extensions), minds will be turning to the next election and to the next chapter for the UK. There may well be a Brexit-related economic downturn to navigate. That will be the time to hand over the reins, either voluntarily or in a forced election. Events could easily throw that expectation off course but for now, it should be our default assumption.