May’s best hope: the Conservatives hate each other

May’s best hope: the Conservatives hate each other

At a more normal time than this, there’s no way Theresa May would still be Prime Minister. It really is going very badly for her.

The negotiations are a mess, she mucked up the election campaign. And this speech!

Her speech at the Conservative Party Conference this week was bad in so many ways. The coughing fit. The collapsing sign. The bland policy ideas. The P45.

And worst of all, part of it was ripped off from a cheesy American TV show. The West Wing is about the adventures of a gang of earnest do-gooders in the late 1990s White House. It’s big on soaring speeches and clever dialogue. It’s like the BBC’s The Thick of It, without cynicism, swearing or humour.

Here’s May:

It is when tested the most that we reach deep within ourselves and find that our capacity to rise to the challenge before us may well be limitless.”

And a cringey line of President Jeb Bartlett’s:

Every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless.”

May wasn’t particularly popular last week but the speech seems to have brought things to a head. Today, it’s reported the former Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps is leading a heave against her. He claims to have corralled “up to 30” MPs.

So what happens now?

Let’s say May goes. (Likelihood of that happening by Christmas according to the bookies: 40%).

The problem with getting rid of May is that she’ll be very tough to replace. May might not be very popular, but at least she’s the status quo. That’s something. If the Tories get rid of her, they’ll have to confront the fact that as a group they have very deep and serious disagreements.

Under Conservative party rules, the MPs get together and come up with a shortlist of two names. The party membership decides which of the two candidates get the job. So there are two power centres — the MPs and the public.

Boris Johnson is the favourite to succeed May right now. But even he, the favourite, has just a 15-20% chance of succeeding May, according to the bookies.

Why only 20%? Because he’s very unpopular among Tory MPs. There’s a big group of them who’ll work very hard to make sure Boris’s name isn’t on the shortlist.

Boris’s power doesn’t come from MPs. It comes from the public. He knows what the membership want to hear. He discovered last year, for the first time, that he was in favour of leaving the EU. And he’s discovered this year that he’s okay with leaving the single market too. The membership loves him for it. If he can make it to the runoff, he’ll probably win.

After Boris, the field is wide open. Brexit’s own David Davis is second favourite – he has firm Brexit credentials, and he’s less controversial than Boris. He’s on 11%. Novelty candidate Jacob Rees-Mogg is on
10%.

“Spreadsheet Phil” Hammond and Amber Rudd lead the liberal, Cameroonian, soft Brexit contingent. They have the advantage of being slightly more appealing to the public than the likes of Johnson or Rees-Mogg.

But its hard to see a liberal Tory coming through this process. The hard Brexit right would have to divide their vote in an improbable way. And in round two, I wouldn’t expect the membership to pick a squishy centrist like Rudd over a hard-charging Brexiteer like Davis.

But, heck, what do I know. My point today is that everything’s up in the air. May’s mucking things up terribly but she’ll be hard to replace. If she goes, there’ll be a civil war. God knows who’ll turn up. Maybe Ruth Davidson will do a James VI on it and somehow wangle her way into the top job.

It’s all very interesting, and I suppose mildly concerning given that the UK has a lot on its plate at the moment. But, crucially, all this infighting doesn’t mean Brexit isn’t delivering benefits for you. The Brexit severance cheques keep on rolling off the presses, week-in week-out. No Tory civil war will stop them.

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