Tories in for the long haul but May is on borrowed time
- Theresa May is likely to survive – for now
- Fear of an early election dominates thinking of Conservative MPs
- Both Remain and Leave factions see an enfeebled May as the most reliable vehicle for realising their own EU agendas
- May will be required to govern in a more consensual manner
- A deal with the Democratic Unionist party is likely although this will be controversial within the Conservative party
- Ruth Davidson’s 13 strong Scottish Conservative parliamentary contingent will be influential including on Brexit
- Queen’s Speech likely to be shorn of anything controversial
- Tighter parliamentary arithmetic makes the so-called Great Repeal Bill a much more difficult prospect
- Labour is now a much more important political player
- House of Lords likely to be much more difficult on Europe
May survives – but for how long?
It is difficult to overstate the chaos and turmoil in the Government and the Conservative party. The Prime Minister herself does not know whether she will survive because her fate is in the hands of others. If she can get through today’s meeting of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs, and be in a position to win the Commons vote on her Queen’s Speech, she would be in a position to carry on as Prime Minister. The question is for how long.
For the moment, she is helped by the fact that the one position which unites Conservative MPs, Cabinet ministers and potential leadership candidates is fear of another general election, which would be made more likely by a bitter and divisive Tory leadership election. But there is another important reason why she is likely to survive in the short term. Leading Remain and Leave supporters in the Conservative party see an enfeebled Theresa May as the best vehicle for pursuing their own version of Brexit.
This weekend’s newspapers have provided ample evidence of this. Saturday’s Financial Times reported that Business Secretary Greg Clark had summoned pro-Remain business groups to his department to discuss stepping up industry lobbying in favour of a soft Brexit. This approach is also being strongly supported by Philip Hammond, who had been threatened with the sack but is now reinstated as Chancellor.
Leading Brexiteers understand the danger and Iain Duncan Smith and Bernard Jenkin separately argued in articles in Sunday newspapers that Theresa May should continue as Prime Minister to see through the Brexit negotiations on the basis of the Conservative manifesto commitments. They are desperate to prevent any watering down of the Government’s current stance of quitting the single market and the customs union and ending jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
A Prime Minister with little authority
These open divisions inside the Tory party underline just how much the Prime Minister has lost authority. Following the election disaster, her style of governance will be very different if she survives. Her replacement of her former chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill by the defeated Conservative MP Gavin Barwell is the first sign of this. Barwell is an old hand in the Conservative party having previously worked in CCHQ and is well liked in Parliament. Her appointment of Damian Green as First Secretary of State, a de facto Deputy Prime Ministerial role and the first time May has appointed anyone to the position, signals that she has realised the need to adopt a more consensual style. This will need to extend to working much more closely with the senior ministers; particularly the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Key tests of May’s viability as a caretaker leader
To secure a governing majority May needs a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. That will be no mean feat. Although the DUP was in favour of Brexit they have specific concerns about the consequences of EU withdrawal, which will need careful handling. More generally, they will make costly demands for new investment in Northern Ireland and may well force other policy changes including dropping the so-called dementia tax. But some sort of arrangement looks probable.
Second, she will need to manage the fallout from a deal with the DUP. There are plenty of people in the Conservative party who are opposed to the DUP and concerned about what an alliance will do for the Tory image. If one of the lessons of the election was that vast swathes of young votes view the Conservatives as ‘out of touch’ with modern Britain, a partnership with the Democratic Unionists may not be the right response. Ruth Davidson, fresh from her astonishing results in Scotland, has already warned the Prime Minister about making concessions over social legislation such as gay rights. She has also indicated that her 13 Scottish Conservative MPs may themselves act as a semi-autonomous bloc within the parliamentary Conservative party. This could well be significant in the complicated Brexit politics because the Scottish Conservatives are strong Remainers.
Third, she has to produce a Queen’s Speech for the Sovereign to deliver on June 19th. It is likely to be a shorter, less ambitious speech than originally planned with a number of manifesto commitments quietly dropped. For example, the proposals to means test winter fuel payments and the so-called dementia tax are unlikely to survive. Similarly the proposal to reintroduce grammar schools is unlikely to command a majority in the House of Commons and may not feature.
But the biggest problem could be the so-called Great Repeal Bill which in essence is a legislative measure to transpose 40 years of EU legislation into UK law. Legally this is absolutely necessary before Britain leaves the European Union in March 2019 to avoid legal and regulatory chaos. But Labour has already said that it is opposed to this legislation and the Government may struggle to get the Bill through both Houses of Parliament unless it works closely with the other parties and not just the DUP.
Labour are relevant again
That brings us to the more prominent role the Labour Party will play in the new Parliament. Jeremy Corbyn and his allies are understandably feeling triumphant following their stunning election results. Although they are 46 seats behind the Conservatives, they wildly exceeded expectations and the core ‘tax and spend’ socialist offer that formed the bedrock of the manifesto is likely to endure at least until the next election. Labour moderates have been silenced by the success of the Corbyn campaign. Some including Chuka Umunna have already indicated that they would be prepared to re-join the shadow cabinet. However early indications are that Corbyn’s rapprochement with the moderates will be limited. He will be reluctant to replace current shadow cabinet members who have been loyal to him and he will be wary of relinquishing his control over any of the levers of power he currently holds. He still leads a largely hostile Parliamentary Labour Party where if anything the number of moderates increased as a result of Labour’s better-than-expected performance.
Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, provided he is kept in that role, is likely to be a key figure in the new Parliament. The senior moderate on Labour’s front bench, Starmer will want to use his position to strengthen the case for a softer Brexit. In the previous Parliament, Labour had a difficult task of uniting the party on a single Brexit position because northern MPs were fearful of UKIP on immigration and London MPs in particular were worried about their own constituents’ strong pro-Remain position. The election results help Starmer as the old UKIP votes did not just go to the Conservatives so Labour MPs are likely to be less fearful on free movement. A united Labour front on Brexit could therefore have significant impact – but that would require Corbyn and McDonnell to alter their position.
Is a soft Brexit more likely after this election?
The election result has prompted many observers to argue that May’s vision of a hard Brexit has been rejected, and that issues like continued membership of the single market and the customs union could be revisited. Certainly the question of what form Brexit should take has become more open. There never was a majority in either House in favour of Brexit let alone a hard Brexit, so the new political situation might suggest movement in favour of either a variation of the Norway or Swiss options.
Furthermore the House of Lords will be more important now and will see themselves at liberty to cause problems on the Great Repeal Bill and other related legislation. All this will require deft party management and an ability to reach out to other parties, neither of which are in Theresa May’s way of doing politics.
However, the likelihood of a softer approach to Brexit should not be overstated. The Cabinet still contains all of the most prominent Leave campaigners – notably with Gove’s return – and the prospect of a future leadership contest means contenders like Boris will continue to see self-interest in a strong Brexit position.
British politics – uncertain and unstable
There are so many imponderables that almost any outcome, including a second general election, has to be seen as possible. For now, a very weakened Theresa May seems set to survive as a ‘caretaker’ Prime Minister. She will, however, not lead the Conservative party into the next election. When that election will take place is impossible to predict. But as things stand there is no appetite among Tory MPs to go to the public again in short order. If they are able, they will form a pact with the DUP that will keep them in office for a number of years – long enough to get through the Brexit talks.
What form of Brexit emerges is the subject of even greater uncertainty. The election result has raised hopes among Remainers that a softer outcome could be secured, but alarmed Leavers who are determined to prevent that from happening. Neither side is dominant. Both have a veto over the other. That makes the job of leading the Conservative party incredibly difficult. To balance these different interests and hold the party together in these circumstances requires an astonishing level of diplomatic and political skill that Theresa May does not appear to possess. But nothing in British politics can be ruled out any more and the drama of the last two years has a few more acts to go.