Like Mark Twain’s death, reports of Theresa May’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Unlike the legendary writer’s death rumours, however, these are more frequent and relentless. Quite how a person of little obvious political skill or charisma, and seemingly little personal support, has managed to soldier on in Britain’s highest political office during a period of more or less consistent crisis, will be as much a matter for political psychologists as historians in the future.
For now, it is enough to occupy ourselves with the return of that perennial British favourite, “Will Theresa Survive?” When she’s not dealing with a crisis of her own making, be it a misjudged election, a botched reshuffle, or the failure to call yet another errant minister to account, Britain’s accidental Prime Minister is usually to be found fire-fighting another round of leadership questions. Or not. The odd thing about these regular leadership issues is just how little we hear from the central figure, Mrs. May herself. Questions are asked, searing articles are penned, a sense of impending crisis is adopted, and some poor soul is shuffled in front of the cameras to make whatever limited case he or she can for the prime minister before the crisis seems to pass. The lady herself, with her pursed lips and dull, thudding phraseology, is nowhere to be seen.
Mrs. May has managed to prove the success of what is in reality a very simple political strategy. Just keep soldiering on. What is often underestimated in analyses of politicians in their insulated environment is just how little radicalism or courage they are willing to show. Caution is the best observed watchword in any political town, and no more so than in Britain’s scarcely beating political heart of Westminster. Most leaders subjected to the sort of crisis-ridden term that Theresa May has had, coupled with the relentless criticism, would have decided to either try and lance the boil with a leadership election ( a tactic once tried by John Major, which saw him re-elected but notably failed to do much lancing) or simply stand down from sheer weariness and stress. Not for nothing is Mrs. May known as the “Maybot”, a term coined by the Guardian’s political sketch writer John Crace. She really does act like some advanced form of AI which has been programmed to go through the motions of Brexit negotiations and will not be distracted from this key task by mere notions of human frailty. Only utter destruction will stop the Maybot in its tracks.
Whether such utter destruction is just round the corner is not yet fully established, but there have once again been rumblings of discontent in Westminster about her leadership. Newspapers report that the chairman of the Conservative backbenchers committee (known as the “1922” committee after the seminal moment in that year when Tory MPs ousted former war leader David Lloyd George) has received nearly enough letters from MPs to spark a leadership election. Commentators have also been dusting off their familiar critiques of the Prime Minister – that she lacks vision, is indecisive, has no idea of what she is doing vis a vis Brexit and cannot control her ministerial colleagues. And her two principal cabinet colleagues, the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, have once again been sparring in public and producing their own versions of government policy.
There are few certainties about any of this other than that Mrs. May will never step down voluntarily, whatever the pressure. When you’ve weathered the sort of disastrous and self-inflicted election defeat that she has, and moreover proved manifestly and publicly incapable of clear leadership on the central issue facing Britain today (Brexit), and still insist on staying in office, you can guarantee nothing else is going to come along to shake that extraordinary self-belief.
The issue is less about Mrs. May now and more about her critics and putative rivals. It isn’t just caution that holds Conservatives back from igniting a leadership election whilst being in a precarious minority government. Both sides are fearful of the alternative. So-called “Remainers” see Mrs. May in all her awkwardness as palpably more acceptable than the flamboyant charlatan Boris Johnson, once again a likely prospect to triumph in a leadership election. The “hard Brexiters” meanwhile worry about the outside prospect of a Remain leader such as Home Secretary Amber Rudd or Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. There is also the chance that they know the political damage that could well come with the sort of “hard Brexit” they are advocating, and prefer someone else to take the fall.
It is certainly conceivable that Theresa May could well still be prime minister when the Brexit deal – in whatever form – is signed and sealed in 2019. But Remainers in particular might want to consider the advantage of letting full blooded Brexiters have their day in dealing with the turbulent negotiations of the Treaty they campaigned so fulsomely for. Trying to limit the treaty, or make it look like we haven’t really left, may sound like a comforting strategy, but it will leave Remainers on the defensive and give the hard Brexiters a stick with which to beat them for many years to come. If the referendum result is to have any chance of lancing the anti-EU boil and bringing some harmony to the Tory party, it may be best to ditch Mrs. May and give Boris and his ragtag army of true believers full reign.