But there’s a good chance Con MPs will do it anyway
Only one of the three traditional British parties currently has a leader – and that one by happenstance. To lead is by definition a dynamic thing. It is to set oneself at the head of something and take it somewhere in such a way that others follow. It is not a quality granted simply by virtue of holding a given office.
On those terms, Vince Cable is not a leader: he and his party are simply invisible. A leader of the Lib Dems would be going and grabbing publicity. Certainly, the losses sustained over the last two general elections left his party make that far harder than it was before 2015 but capable leaders of smaller parties – Caroline Lucas and Nigel Farage spring to mind – have managed it in the past. The Lib Dems’ impressively large membership has been garnered despite their leader, not because of him.
But Cable’s failings pale beside those of the prime minister. It was telling that she devoted her speech at Davos to the subjects of internet security and regulating artificial intelligence: important matters no doubt but not ones to grab the attention of either the national media or her international peers. She was in effect running back to the ground on which she felt comfortable as Home Secretary – a post that she’s never truly psychologically left. Even more importantly, she didn’t propose anything so there was nowhere for her to lead anyone nor for them to follow.
Her failure to become the leader she was elected to be is, inevitably, what’s at the heart of the renewed speculation over her future at the head of the Conservative Party. The newspaper stories this week might have been based on the alleged comments of the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, asking Tory MPs to be careful in submitting any more letters (a comment which by definition should always apply and which might be as likely to encourage some MPs to act as to put them off), but if more letters have been dropping into Graham Brady’s inbox recently, it’s because of the extent to which her standing has been damaged as much by the actions of others as by anything she’s done. But that in itself is only possible because the vacuum at the centre.
Politically, that’s a recipe for instability. Sooner or later, something will happen that will prompt MPs to act – possibly after a minister does so – or for May to quit of her own accord, though that’s much less likely: prime ministers are rarely short of self-confidence. If Tory MPs are thinking straight, it should be later.
There are all sorts of reasons not to call a Vote of No Confidence now. For one thing, while she’s not much of a leader, she’s not a bad head of government. There’s no great innovation and the intentions she spelt out on entering Number Ten will forever be unfulfilled by her, but as far as anyone else’s ambitions go, that failure to establish a direction is no bad thing: they have no need to engage in premature action to stave off an irreversible decision. In terms of the economy and public services, she’s doing a reasonable job of minding the shop. Sure, there are issues in the NHS at the moment and there are other challenges ranging from Universal Credit to Stormont but none that can’t be rectified with application and perhaps more cash.
Except of course for Brexit: that cannot be deferred. (Let’s leave aside unrealistic legal loopholes here – Britain will leave in Spring next year, probably on March 29, because that’s what nearly all Conservative MPs, plus a large enough number from other parties, are committed to). However, that very fact should of itself be a deterrent to action. To take another two months out of the timetable to indulge in a leadership election would not only be grossly irresponsible and look ridiculous to the public and to the EU27, it could only result in one of two possibilities: a new leader with much the same policy, in which case why bother, or one that wants to rip up 18 months’ work and replace it in a third of the time with something that the other EU members will almost certainly find harder to agree to (on the assumption that any change in policy would be to a harder Brexit) – which is probably not deliverable.
Either way, whatever the outcome, those who don’t like it will blame the leadership contest, certainly for it being a distraction and, depending on their view, because of the outcome.
Besides, if the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that elections are inherently unpredictable, both in themselves and in what the person or party elected turns out to be like. An attempted coup from the Ultras could end up with the membership being given a choice of Amber Rudd and Jeremy Hunt if, say, Boris knocked out the other Leavers and then imploded in a badly misjudged remark. Is it worth the risk?
And of course, there’s the even bigger risk that the leadership election messes up the Conservatives’ relationship with the DUP – not at all impossible given the interrelated issues of Brexit and the N Irish border – and the country is plunged into another general election, taking a further six weeks or more out, riling the public and risking the very real possibility of a Labour win.
We should note, while we’re at it, that there is the risk that the MPs having called a Vote of No Confidence, May then wins. I doubt that she would – the disillusionment seems too deep and the very act of calling a vote would undermine her position further – but the possibility must be faced. In that case, if she won narrowly, it would do nothing to resolve the situation and would probably bring discontent further out into the open; if she won comfortably, with MPs taking the view that now is not the time, then May’s position could be strengthened sufficiently that it becomes hard to challenge her again later in the parliament. On that basis, my own view is that whatever damage a leadership contest would do, calling a vote is of itself the point of no return.
But this is a betting site. The question of what MPs should do (from their own perspective) is a rather different one from what they will do. Muddling through is not an attractive option when there is an alternative, even if that alternative is a leap in the dark.
Will May be forced out this year? Until this last week, I’d have said no based on the power of the logic (though that was also the reason why I didn’t think May would reshuffle this year either). But now? I think there’s a good chance and if it happens, it’ll probably be in response to some incident we cannot yet predict in detail. Everyone has a limit to their patience.