UK Conservative Party: fear and loathing

Theresa May survives only because the alternatives to her are unappealing or unconvincing to Tory MPs

 

British prime minister Theresa May has had a terrible week as the pitiful anti-climax of her conference speech was followed yesterday by mounting speculation she will soon be forced to resign. Already struggling to survive since a disastrous general election in June, this week’s events have reinforced the impression of a weak leader who has failed to reassert her authority.

The resulting uncertainty about her leadership, her party’s unity and her country’s clarity on Brexit’s destination leaves British voters confused and European leaders increasingly angry about being made hostage to such internal political wrangling. May survives only because the alternatives to her are unappealing or unconvincing to Conservative MPs, who are even more petrified by the possibility of a Labour government led from the left by Jeremy Corbyn. It’s an unsustainable mix and could see her gone by Christmas.

May’s efforts to reorient the Conservatives towards a more socially concerned agenda through greater public housing, cheaper energy and lower tuition fees also fell victim to the misfortunes of her conference speech. A striking feature of the conference, and of Conservative electoral support, is an older age profile compared to Labour’s much younger one. The average age of Conservative members is 72, perhaps twice that of Labour’s much newer and more numerous base. Extrapolating that ahead to future elections looks perilous for the governing party’s prospects.

May said yesterday she has the support of her cabinet colleagues and is determined to stay in office. The balance of forces for her may well outweigh those opposed in the next few weeks. But if she fails to reclaim her authority and impose political discipline on a party deeply divided over Brexit, it is hard to see her surviving in the months to come.

Other shocks lie ahead, and the abiding uncertainty looks set to continue. Those affected by the resulting policy confusion, not least in Ireland, must prepare for it to deepen further before it is resolved.

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