Amidst the chaos, May hangs on
How many setbacks can Theresa May experience before she is forced to throw in the towel? That’s the question preoccupying MPs and commentators after a chaotic fortnight that has seen two Cabinet resignations, a significant blunder by the Foreign Secretary, a question mark over the future of the de facto Deputy PM and continued pressure on Brexit.
Immediate collapse is unlikely
Parallels with John Major’s government suggest that the Conservatives, and Theresa May, can limp on regardless. The PM is paralysed yet Conservative MPs remain bewildered about who could succeed her. While there is no obvious successor she survives.
The entire government has looked unsustainably shambolic in recent weeks. Yet the Fixed Term Parliament Act reduces the prospect of a snap election. The DUP is unlikely to pull the plug and regardless of the internal Tory divisions, no Conservative MP wants a contest with Labour. But while immediate collapse is unlikely, the next few months could be very rocky indeed.
Brexit negotiations could turn toxic for May
On Brexit the EU is holding a hard line. Further talks are required on citizen’s rights and the role of the European Court of Justice, though both these issues appear surmountable. The Northern Ireland border looks an increasingly difficult question.
Leaked reports today suggest both Dublin and the EU Commission is pushing hard for an ‘all-island’ approach where Northern Ireland remains a member of the customs union. This would be fatal for May as her DUP partners would find this outcome intolerable. It is this reason why David Davis made it clear today that while the UK wants to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, the Government is unprepared to consider a customs border on the mainland.
But the biggest immediate hurdle is money and what the UK’s financial contribution should be. Michel Barnier made clear today that the UK has two weeks to clarify and improve the offer made in Florence, or risk seeing the talks stall again next month.
Parliament is set to become more important
All of this increases the pressure on the Prime Minister, who faces a major parliamentary test on the EU Withdrawal Bill next week. Her move to enshrine the date of Brexit in primary legislation underlines how she needs to placate Brexiteers in her own party. Providing reassurance on withdrawal is critical if she is to avoid insurrection over an increased exit bill. But the danger for May is amendments that would give parliament greater power to approve or reject Brexit, adding further spice to arguments that Article 50 can, legally, be revoked.
The Budget could provoke a wide-ranging reshuffle
Aside from Brexit the Government faces a difficult Budget. Economics point one way but politics another. The public is tired of austerity and pressure to increase wages and wider public spending is growing as inflation begins to bite. Yet Philip Hammond will be reluctant to abandon his fiscal discipline for fear of losing economic credibility – one trump card the Tories still hold over Labour.
But a piecemeal budget will add to a sense of drift and further weaken the government. This could prove fatal for the Chancellor, who is not renowned for being politically deft, if the Budget bombs. It could prompt May to instigate a wide-ranging reshuffle that ushers in a host of new ministers both at the Cabinet table and the junior ranks.
Such a move would be a last throw of the dice by the Prime Ministerial to regain political authority. May’s future hangs in the balance. Yet with recent polls putting Labour only very narrowly ahead, and May retaining a personal lead over Jeremy Corbyn, some on the Conservative side argue that there is no need to do anything drastic. Despite the chaos, the Prime Minister may yet see in the New Year in 10 Downing Street.