Theresa May’s popularity amongst her own party has never been lower. The most recent Conservative Home poll of Conservative party members found that 45 per cent want her to resign now – more than double the figure last month – and 40 per cent want her out before the next election. For a long time it has almost been received wisdom that May would resign or be replaced sometime between Britain formally leaving the EU in 2019 and the next general election in 2022, but could she be forced out even sooner?
May’s survival so far has owed a lot to her ambiguous approach to Brexit; she has given speeches at Lancaster House and Mansion House aimed squarely at the hard Brexit supporting majority in her party’s membership while discussing ‘backstop’ arrangements with the EU and devising arrangements for a ‘customs partnership’. Eventually however, May had to reconcile the sloganeering of a ‘red, white and blue’ Brexit with the realities of the actual negotiations with the EU. The resulting document, the Chequers deal, fell far short of her party’s expectations, prompting a string of high profile resignations.
Polls since the Chequers deal have made grim reading for the Conservatives. While Labour’s polling remains relatively flat, a resurgent UKIP could rob the Conservatives of their slim plurality if the numbers were translated into a general election, handing victory to Labour. While there are plenty of Conservative MPs who would like to see Theresa May go based purely on her handling of Brexit, the possibility that La犀利士
bour could win the next election could convince others that a new leader is necessary.
Labour’s present weakness may also hasten May’s departure. Labour still lacks a coherent policy on Brexit and is currently not only failing to deal with instances of anti-Semitism in the party, but failing to acknowledge the problem exists. As a result, there is an argument that a new Conservative leader could significantly draw ahead of Labour in the polls, leaving them better placed for the next election, which could come earlier than expected if the government is unable to get Brexit legislation through the Commons.
Of course, replacing a leader is fraught with risk and the Conservative party is famed for being pragmatic and pursuing electoral success above all else. Rationally, it still makes sense to allow Theresa May to complete the Brexit negotiations and replace her with a fresh contender for 2022 to present a clean break between May’s Brexit and the new leader, heading off the UKIP threat. But on Europe, the Conservative party is not pragmatic. Brexit is an emotive issue for the party and if May is judged to be heading towards too soft a Brexit, the party’s membership and European Research Group of MPs could easily turn on her.
If May wants to keep her job, she can go one of two ways after recess. Firstly, she could try to consolidate her soft Brexit position and try to win the support of MPs in other parties. This would likely see her face a vote of no confidence, orchestrated by Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group MPs, which she could contest and probably win. However, this situation would leave her with openly rebellious MPs and no guaranteed majority to get Brexit legislation through the Commons. Alternatively, she could choose to make concessions to the hard Brexit supporting wing of her party, which would ultimately mean pursuing a course of action making a no deal Brexit significantly more likely, something it is unlikely May wants.
As Brexit approaches, it is increasingly obvious there is no majority for any specific form of Brexit in the Commons. This makes it almost impossible for a Prime Minister to lead the country out of the EU. If pressure from her party does not abate and Conservative members continue to lose confidence in her leadership, Theresa May could choose to resign before Brexit negotiations are complete.