“The Conservative Party is in greater turmoil today than ever before in its long history.”
So says Lord Lexden, the party’s official historian, in a letter to the Times. He adds that Theresa May has ‘completely lost’ the party’s confidence ‘both in and outside parliament’, and he asks the 1922 Committee to change the rules for Tory leadership elections so ‘a disastrous leader cannot cling on for months without significant support’. He ends by referring to Churchill’s view that leaders who fail must be pole-axed.
Lexden is very likely right that the rules ought to be changed. But difficult political situations can never be governed entirely by rules. They call for judgment, the exercise of which can be impeded by excessive regulation. Labour ended up with a leader in whom most of its MPs feel no confidence because it changed its rules with too little consideration of what the unintended consequences might be.
It is worth looking at what Churchill wrote as he considered, in his account of the Second World War, the nature of his position after becoming prime minister in 1940:
“The loyalties which centre upon number one are enormous. If he trips he must be sustained. If he makes mistakes they must be covered. If he sleeps he must not be wantonly disturbed. If he is no good he must be pole-axed. But this last extreme process cannot be carried out every day; and certainly not in the days just after he has been chosen.”
Conservatives know now, as they knew then, that the “extreme process” of pole-axing a leader “cannot be carried out every day”. They also know that all leaders need to be sustained when they stumble. The present Prime Minister’s close colleagues continue as a matter of common prudence and decency to sustain her. When David Lidington stood in for her at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, she having gone to Belfast to attend Lyra McKee’s funeral, he was as usual impeccably loyal. Such loyalty is unnewsworthy, and is therefore underreported.
It is also, however, true that Lidington was unable to convey the slightest impression of forward movement. The Brexit negotiations between the Conservatives and Labour appear to be stalled, and the failure to leave the European Union on 29 March, as promised over a hundred times by the Prime Minister, has brought Nigel Farage back from the political dead. His new movement, the Brexit Party, looks likely to humiliate the Conservatives in the European elections on 23 May, unless she can avert that poll by getting her deal through the Commons, which it seems she can’t.
The party is stumbling towards disaster. Why then do Conservative MPs continue to support her? As recently as 12 December 2018, after 15 per cent of the parliamentary party had demanded a vote of confidence be held, they backed her by 200 votes to 117. Under the present rules that exercise cannot be repeated until next December. Lexden proposes that a challenge to the leader should be allowed whenever 30 per cent of Tory MPs publicly demand one.
Why the refusal of the ’22 this week to change the rules? Why have the Prime Minister’s noisiest backbench critics failed to persuade enough of their colleagues that she must go? Why has the Cabinet not risen in a body and told her it is all over?
One reason is that she has said she will go anyhow once her Brexit deal has been passed. Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the ’22, has now asked her “to set out a clear timetable” for when she will leave. The problem from her point of view is that as soon as she does that, she becomes the lamest of lame ducks, with even less prospect of getting the progress on Brexit which might enable her to salvage her reputation.
The problem from the party’s point of view has nothing to do with that, and nothing to do with the rules. May is still prime minister because her parliamentary colleagues cannot agree who should replace her. An increasing number feel a purely managerial figure, drawn from the ranks of the present cabinet, will not do. ‘We need someone with a bit of oomph,’ one backbencher from the Remain wing of the party told me recently. Rather to my surprise, he is now prepared to entertain the idea of Boris Johnson as the next Tory leader.
But a lot of Tory MPs are horrified by the idea of Johnson taking over. Whenever the leadership contest is held, they will put up a Stop Boris candidate. Indeed, for safety’s sake they really need two Stop Boris candidates, in order to keep him off the final shortlist of two, selected by Tory MPs, between whom the membership will decide. And that is a tall order, when one considers that the next leader must be a good enough campaigner to lead the party into the next general election with some prospect of success.
So for the time being, May is the Stop Boris candidate. That is the farcical position in which the Conservative party now finds itself. Surely, one thinks, things cannot go on like this for much longer.