Tories must play for time, for the good of the UK and the party
Theresa May’s Conservatives cannot call another election – and cannot not call one
Postelection blues: if Theresa May were to say that she will quit as prime minister by the Conservative Party conference in October, some of the rancour against her would ease. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty
Emmanuel Macron can now expect control of the French parliament to go with the presidency he clinched last month. Another European of the broad centre, Angela Merkel, should remain chancellor of Germany beyond September. Both countries have strong governments, containable populist parties and some shared intent to secure the euro zone after years of drift.
The United Kingdom is not merely losing its head, then, but is doing so as the nations against which it measures itself find theirs. It is succumbing to relative, not just absolute, fiasco, “led” by a prime minister who is drained of all confidence after a botched election, governing at the mercy of 10 Democratic Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland, chased down by a rampant Labour opposition, a week away from talks to exit the European Union.
Theresa May could still salvage something for the UK national interest that saves her from seeing out her career as the punchline to a thousand jokes
There is, for all this, some honour in Theresa May’s decision to remain for a while as prime minister. It was the abrupt resignation of David Cameron, her predecessor, that allowed such an unsuitable replacement to be rushed into high office. She could still salvage something for the national interest that saves her from seeing out her career as the punchline to a thousand jokes.
Imagine that she opens the European negotiation with agreement to a generous exit bill and unilateral recognition of continentals’ residence rights in the UK. Any domestic anger at the concessions would fall on a leader who is finished anyway, leaving her successor to continue the talks with a fresh stock of political capital and the preliminaries already settled.
She can do that much for her party. She cannot save it from the dilemma created by a hung parliament. If the Conservatives ask the public once again for a majority they will need a new leader. The selection process would force them to choose between the softer and harder versions of exit touted by various candidates, just as disagreements on that question are starting to widen.
The Tories could fall out with each other in full view of a nation that knows its negotiating line is being decided by about 150,000 people. Even if the party defies its own past by hanging together on the question of Europe, there is no guarantee of an election win.
Labour could not design a more provocative spectacle, one more likely to irk the young, the liberal, the urban
If, however, the Tories decide against an election, then a slower ordeal would play out. All governments lose support over time, but this one is almost designed for that purpose. A discredited prime minister (or an unelected new one) kept going by an ultraconservative minority party, unable to do much other than Brexit: Labour could not design a more provocative spectacle, one more likely to irk the young, the liberal, the urban. The Tories would regain the reputation that Cameron spent a decade cleaning up.
Each day of May’s government makes its reckoning at the hands of voters more severe. Ministers contending with such domestic trouble would struggle to conduct the exit talks and steer the deal through parliament.
This, then, is the Tories’ bind. They cannot call an election and they cannot not call an election. They must choose from two unthinkables. The least bad option, for them and the country, is the brave one. If May were to say that she will leave by the time of the Conservative Party conference in October, some of the rancour against her would ease. The DUP deal would be understood as a means of giving the country a government through some difficult weeks and not as a deeper compromise by the Tories.
The many MPs who believe on the quiet that exit from the single market is a nonsense should speak up, even if their candidate stands no chance
Upon her announcement the Conservatives could then hold the serious leadership election they ducked last summer. The many MPs who believe on the quiet that exit from the single market is a nonsense should speak up, even if their candidate stands no chance. The victor would then hold a general election in the autumn.
The party has next to no appetite for either an internal election or a general one. With clever gestures to the DUP, and effective renouncement of their plans for fiscal consolidation, it can string things out as they are. Minority governments lasted for years in the 1970s.
But that kind of politics only forestalls a crisis – perhaps one that erupts just as the UK takes its leave from the EU. Under May, and before her Cameron, leadership became the low art of doing whatever tactical trick gets you through the week until the gradual build-up of contradictions and liabilities gives rise to an unsurvivable crisis.
The Tories must at least attempt a more lasting fix. A nation with a deficit to clear and a momentous Europe policy to shape needs one. And it is a strange day when Tories look to the 1970s as a time to recapture.
© Financial Times