Brave face cannot hide the fact that May is on borrowed time

Prime minister clinging to power by a thread after disastrous gamble on early election

British prime minister Theresa May says she will reshuffle cabinet posts following general election losses. Video: Reuters


Theresa May behaved on Friday like a prime minister who had won a fresh mandate, driving along the Mall to Buckingham Palace to ask Queen Elizabeth for permission to form a government. Outside No 10 Downing Street, she spoke about “fulfilling the promise of Brexit” over the next five years, working with “friends and allies” in the Democratic Unionist Party.

There was no trace of humility and no recognition that she is clinging to power by a thread after her disastrous gamble on an early election left the Conservatives eight seats short of a parliamentary majority. May’s political career is over, her authority as prime minister destroyed and everyone in Westminster knows it is only a matter of time before she steps down.

The prime minister was the alpha and the omega of the Conservative campaign, which emblazoned her name in huge lettering on its posters and buses. And she chose the terrain on which the battle should be fought, doubling down on a hard Brexit in the hope of winning over Ukip voters and pro-Brexit Labour supporters.

Although her party blames her for the catastrophe, senior figures told May that she has a responsibility to stay on as prime minister for the time being. Nobody expects her to lead the Conservatives into the next general election and most predict she will be gone within months. May won the Conservative leadership without a contest, so the party will be keen to test her successor in a leadership race.

May called the election with the aim of winning an enhanced mandate for her approach to Brexit, which means leaving the single market, the customs union and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Her party’s losses mean there is no longer a parliamentary majority behind such a hard Brexit and Conservatives on Friday suggested that she may have to soften her approach, perhaps by seeking to keep Britain inside the single market and the customs union.

Opportunities to rebel

Strictly speaking, the Brexit negotiations can be conducted by Brexit secretary David Davis and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier without immediate reference to parliament. MPs will, however, consider numerous pieces of Brexit-related legislation, which will offer opportunities for opponents of a hard Brexit to rebel.

The election of 12 new Scottish Conservative MPs will boost the number of backers of a soft Brexit on the benches behind May. And the DUP wants to stay in the customs union to avoid a hard Border, although the party takes a hard line on ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

The problem is that, even if May wanted to soften her approach to Brexit (and there is no evidence that she does), she now lacks the authority to stand up to hard Brexiteers on her own benches and in the Conservative-supporting press. The loudest calls for her to stay on as prime minister on Friday came from hard Brexiteers such as Steve Baker, who leads a caucus of Conservative MPs committed to a hard Brexit.

A further problem can be found in the way this election has reshaped the political map of England, with constituencies in the north that backed Brexit last year leaning to the Conservatives, while those in the south that backed Remain saw a swing to Labour and the loss of Tory seats. Conservative seats are now more heavily concentrated in Brexit-supporting areas and most of the party’s new English MPs will represent voters who want to leave the EU as quickly and cleanly as possible.

Worst of both worlds

So the prime minister is likely to find herself in the most uncomfortable of both worlds, afraid to compromise with the EU but unable to sell a hard Brexit to parliament. May’s political weakness at home will not make it easier for her to negotiate effectively in Europe, where her interlocutors may be tempted to wait for her successor before getting serious about the talks.

One of the ironies of May’s humiliation is that it came on the back of the highest share of the vote won by the party since 1979, higher even than Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 landslide. The collapse of Ukip saw the right-wing vote reunite behind the Conservatives, and Labour succeeded in consolidating most of the anti-Conservative vote behind Jeremy Corbyn. After years of fragmentation, the two main parties won 82.5 per cent of the vote on Thursday, their highest share since 1970. 

The Conservatives almost certainly face a leadership election, perhaps before the autumn, which is likely to be followed by a second general election, possibly before the end of this year. In the meantime, the article 50 clock ticks inexorably downwards towards Britain’s departure from the EU at the end of March 2019.

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