Theresa May’s great political skill, the driving force behind her career, has been the ability to keep her head down. The virtue of ducking out of the firing line is an important one in British politics. When promotion often comes through dead man’s shoes there is a delicate art to making sure others get hit by the flak, of walking through the food fight and coming out only mildly custard-stained. When the other leading figures in your party destroy themselves, and/or each other in ever more convoluted ways it can even get you all the way to being Prime Minister.
Which is where she is, holding a far more important, prestigious, and difficult job than this humble writer will ever hold (tread softly on my dreams commenters, especially regarding my commas), while facing down the traditional bane of Conservative leaders, infighting over Europe.
May’s recent victory (there’s an unusual start to a sentence) has confirmed her as the least unpopular of the possible options. Which, given the possible alternatives, is an achievement that ranks somewhere alongside being acclaimed as the party’s favourite STI (decide for yourselves which one matches each candidate).
It also means she can’t be challenged for a full year, which now seems an unimaginably long period at a time when new disasters come along so often that click-hunting headline writers have to find ways to communicate that this story is actually about a new shambolic crisis and not the one you read about half an hour ago.
The price for this was a promise not to lead the party into the next general election, which really is up there with a turkey making new year’s resolutions. In the event of a snap election they’re hardly going to hold a leadership election (and there isn’t exactly an obvious, consensus, successor) and I don’t think many were expecting her to make it to a hypothetical 2022 election.
So having survived the internal rebellion (and I’m sure the ERG will now fall in line as model supporters) she simply has to retain the official confidence of Parliament with a Brexit vote due in January. Nicola Sturgeon, Vince Cable, et al have started a fun Christmas twitter game of baiting Jeremy Corbyn about calling a vote of no confidence (while avoiding the suggestion they could do it themselves and dare Corbyn not to fall in line).
Corbyn has been very reluctant to do so, probably because he is worried that he doesn’t have the votes and his failure would only strengthen May. The idea that Corbyn would be happier to see May push through a Brexit deal and take the associated blame rather than have to deal with the same policy and party problems himself is of course baseless speculation that I almost totally believe.
Which leads to my advice to Theresa May. Do what your opponent wants least, force a vote of confidence now. Dare the ERG to bring a Tory government down, let the DUP stare at Corbyn and decide if they’d really prefer him as Prime Minister. This is the closest to riding high you’re going to get so use the opportunity. If you wait for one of your opponents then it will be called at one of the many weak moments to come, stretching your premiership only makes its end more certainly soon.
Break the habit of a political lifetime and force the battle on your terms, you might just win.
P.S. If you lose and push the problems of pushing through Brexit into Corbyn’s lap it’s probably the best thing you can do for the long term prospects of the Conservative party. Might even help your legacy.