Good news has been hard to find for Theresa May in recent months. The Prime Minister, forced to jettison her closest aides in the aftermath of an election result which was not all she hoped it might be, has cut a lonely figure lately. Such may be the fate of all embattled Prime Ministers but the absence of allies seems revealing. The Prime Minister is on borrowed time, playing out the string, and everyone knows it.
Relations with her most senior colleagues could hardly be said to be warm. She seems to be almost permanently at odds with her Chancellor and, increasingly, also with her Home Secretary. As for the Foreign Secretary, well, perhaps the less said the better.
The Government limps on, however, consumed by a Brexit process it can neither lead nor control. A process that, whatever deal may or may not be reached with the EU, can hardly be reckoned to have got off to a good start. It is difficult to remember there really was a point when Mrs May was welcomed as a new broom and hailed as just the kind of steady – or even strong and stable – manager the country needed at an uncertain time.
Nevertheless, the Prime Minister did receive some good news this week. A ConservativeHome survey of Tory party members and activists published this week suggested that, for the time being, Jacob Rees-Mogg is the party grassroots’ favourite candidate to replace May as Tory leader and, presumably, Prime Minister. The thinking, if it can be reckoned such, appears to be that if Labour elect a parody as leader and do surprisingly well then there’s no good reason for the Tories not to follow suit.
Alternatively, and more persuasively, this poll result just goes to show that May’s position within the Tory party is vastly more secure than her position, or reputation, in the country. As ConservativeHome’s editor, the former MP Paul Goodman, observed, the Mogg surge surely reflects a widespread dissatisfaction with the slate of plausible replacements more than it does a genuine desire to see the Tory party indulge a particularly eccentric form of madness.
It may be surprising that so many people seem surprised that a traditional catholic holds traditional catholic – and thus irredeemably unfashionable – views on abortion and same-sex marriage but there is no gainsaying the manner in which Mogg’s opinions are out of step with the times. A Mogg leadership would pour unneeded petrol onto the culture wars already burning brightly in British politics. And he would lead the Tories off a cliff.
Not that it will come to that for there is no sign of any parliamentary Moggmentum and since it is MPs who will choose the final two candidates to be put before the Tory membership we may still trust that a sufficient number of those MPs will retain their wits long enough to block Mogg.
Then again the Stop Mogg votes may need to be apportioned carefully lest a surfeit of Mogg-blockers unwittingly allow other sub-optimal candidates into the final two. Stop Mogg is one thing but when you need to Stop Leadsom and Stop Raab and Stop Johnson you begin to worry there’s more stopping than travelling in the modern Conservative party. Someone, after all, won’t be stopped.
Nevertheless, the most telling finding from the ConHome survey was the identity of the person who came second: AN Other. Mr – or Ms – Other took 19 per cent of the vote, just four points behind Mogg. If we assume, as perhaps we should not, that at least half of Mogg’s 23 per cent is a quasi-ironic protest vote against the general calibre of the field then it becomes apparent that Some Other Sod is the runaway leader in the race to replace May.
Never underestimate the usefulness of dogged stickability. Theresa May did not survive six years at the Home Office without developing some skills and if the price of a thick skin is a tin ear then so be it. The Prime Minister risked mockery when she said she intended to fight the next election as leader of the party but, of course, no alternative answer was possible. (This does not mean she actually will lead the Tories into the next election.)
Sometimes a polite fiction is necessary and the Tory party – an “organised hypocrisy” as Disraeli put it – is indulging in such fictions now. May cannot survive indefinitely but even in her weakened state the strength and stability she offers is enough to make her preferable to the alternatives.
Just as political strengths are often weaknesses disguised, so weakness can be strength. May’s position, then, is stronger than it looks. She lacks authority in the country and popularity within the party but, if nothing else, she will, as Churchill put it, keep buggering on until such time as the party tires of her. There’s a kind of strength in that.
If May were to be replaced, there would need to be some agreement on who should succeed her. There would need to be a would-be king or queen waiting in the wings, if only to force the issue. 18 months ago that might have been Boris Johnson or George Osborne, a reminder of how quickly time passes and political fortunes can wither. Only eight per cent of Tory activists back Boris which, in the circumstances, must count as one of the more humiliating political declines in recent memory.
And so we go on, not with any great confidence or vigour but because there is nothing else to do. This, it should be noted, is the comforting analysis of the party’s present situation. The alternative, worse by far, is that Moggmentum really is a real thing and not just the fag end of the silly season.
That cannot be discounted – it remains chilling to recall that no fewer than 66 Tory MPs backed Andrea Leadsom in the first round of voting last time around – but, if so, that’s less a protest vote than a keening cry for help. This is a mess of the party’s own creation but one that, in the absence of anything better, leaves the Prime Minister stronger than she looks.
But with Mogg and AN Other combining to win the support of more than 40 per cent of Tory members the message is clear: we broke it, will someone please fix it? And by someone, they mean anyone. Anyone at all.