Conservative Party: Is a Change of Leadership Imminent?
Talk of change within the Conservative Party is nothing particularly new. Speculation over the future of Theresa May and her leadership has existed for over a year, with unrest beginning to mount after the General Election in 2017. However, with the Conservative Party Conference having recently concluded, a revisit to this debate is in order.
STATE OF AFFAIRS
To understand the state of Theresa May’s leadership at the moment, we first need to return to the beginning. In the aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum, which saw nearly 52% of the electorate vote to withdraw from the European Union, David Cameron opted to resign, despite stating days before that he would continue as Prime Minister regardless of the result. A vacuum of leadership soon appeared, only for it to be filled by then-Home Secretary, Theresa May, who in her first speech as Prime Minister promised a vision of a “Better Britain”.
Since then, however, it has not worked out that way. Support for the Prime Minister has declined not only with the electorate but within the rank and file of her own party, with a notable turning point being the disastrous General Election in 2017. Having called the election early with the hopes of legitimising her leadership and eliminating a seemingly weak and divided Labour opposition, Theresa May and the Conservatives witnessed an election result that some predicted would be similar to the days of Thatcher, disintegrate into a loss of seats and relegation to minority government status. In short, Theresa May’s premiership already looked like it was about to end, much like the Conservative government which has governed Britain since 2010. Confidence within the party was undoubtedly shaken at that point, and it has not recovered since.
Another defining moment for Theresa May’s leadership has been her Chequers deal. The deal, which was praised by the Prime Minister herself as a “collective position on future negotiations with the EU” has not been received in such a positive way as that. Boris Johnson, probably the biggest critic of the deal that you can find, has described it as a “collective failure of government”. Jacob Rees-Mogg, another notable critic, views the deal as a product of negotiations that have been “badly conducted”. Point being, May’s Brexit stance is not convincing many within her party to support her, and as Brexit dominates British politics at the moment, almost every other policy stance lacks relevance if some form of unity is absent from the Brexit deal. Of course, the issue is more nuanced than it’s being put here. Some would prefer to simply stay with the European Union, while others entertain the idea of a no-deal Brexit and whether or not that might be better for Britain in the long-term.
The issue of Brexit has destabilised May’s authority and ability to command party and country, more so than anything else. It has led to key resignations earlier in the year from her Brexit Secretary, David Davis, and her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, the latter of whom is widely believed to be preparing for a leadership bid at some point in the future. These resignations link to another problem that Theresa May must face – which is the prospect of a vote of no confidence. As mentioned, the support for Theresa May has declined within party ranks, to the point where a vote of no confidence was rumoured to be gaining momentum in the aftermath of important resignations. The number of letters which have been sent to the 1922 Committee chairman, Sir Graham Brady, is relatively unknown, with only 5 MPs declaring publicly that they have sent a letter. The issue lingered as recently as the Party Conference, with Conservative MP James Duddridge declaring that he had written a letter of no confidence. If a vote of no confidence was to be held, a change of leadership would indeed be very likely. And considering that these letters remain in the hands of the chairman indefinitely, unless the writer of that letter decides to withdraw it, the importance of delivering a popular Brexit deal becomes ever-more pivotal in the survival and success of Theresa May’s tenure as Prime Minister.
Who could succeed Theresa May?
It's all well and good to speculate over the future of Theresa May, but the question cannot be answered without asking another question. Who would succeed her? Her successor will no doubt be almost exclusively chosen based on their stance on Brexit. Key members of the Conservative Party, such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, continue to entertain the idea of a no-deal Brexit in a rather indifferent tone, which has in turn forced Theresa May in her closing speech at the Tory Conference to not rule out the prospect of a no-deal result in six months’ time.
Boris Johnson is, to me at least, the most obvious candidate to succeed Theresa May. The former Foreign Secretary is a known proponent of Brexit, having campaigned for the ‘Leave’ campaign during the referendum. Since then, he has been critical of the government’s approach to Brexit, of which led to his own resignation as Foreign Secretary earlier in July. His position on Brexit, combined with his character as the bombastic but lovable former Mayor of London, might give him the momentum he needs to succeed. A poll conducted on Conservative Home in August placed Boris Johnson as the favourite to succeed Theresa May, which could suggest he is the most popular among Conservative members. However, his time in government in recent years raises questions over his ability to lead the country, particularly in a post-Brexit world where it is almost certain Britain will need to seek the partnerships of countries outside Europe. From discussing whisky at a Sikh gurdwara, reciting a poem by Kipling in Myanmar, to jeopardising the efforts of the British government to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Johnson has created controversy after controversy, which might not bode well for a country that needs to be strengthening relationships rather than create embarrassments.
Jacob Rees-Mogg is another potential successor to consider. Though he has not indicated a desire to run for the leadership, he has become more prominent in recent months for his strong stance on Brexit, best exemplified by his role as chairman of the pro-Brexit ‘European Research Group’. And with the Chequers deal being unpopular, pro-Brexit members of the Conservative Party and indeed supporters of Brexit across the country could possibly entertain the idea of him becoming the next Prime Minister. Despite his strong pro-Brexit position, other stances arguably won’t appeal as much to the wider British electorate, or perhaps even mainstream Conservatives. For example, he doesn’t support abortion or gay marriage, he has never had a "Cheeky Nandos" and he has voted controversially elsewhere, such as for more welfare cuts.
Other candidates could include Sajid Javid, the new Home Secretary who replaced Amber Rudd in the wake of the Windrush Scandal. And let’s not forget Michael Gove, who after a disappointing leadership bid in 2016 might want to have another go.
For a leadership challenge to be imminent, there needs to be a challenger ready to follow through and, well, challenge. While Boris Johnson does look set to challenge Theresa May at some point in the near future, I don’t see many other candidates lining up behind him to go for the leadership. Arguably, Theresa May has held onto the job for so long because nobody else wants it. Or to someone else, she’s there because she’s the best the party can offer and everyone else is too polarising compared to her.
Officially, Britain withdraws from the European Union on the 29th of March, 2019. Until then, her critics will continue to talk but launch no bid. If someone wanted the job and had enough backing behind them to do it, then perhaps she would have been gone in July. But so far she has carried on, and in hindsight, her performance at the Conservative Party Conference wasn’t the worst. Her efforts to unify the party might just work, or it might fall on deaf ears. What will ultimately decide her fate is Brexit, much like it will decide almost everything in the country, hence the incredible focus on it in this piece. Theresa May will continue to be Prime Minister so long as her critics continue to let her be there. It won’t be an imminent change, but it’s very unlikely she will be there to contest the next election in 2022 (excluding the possibility of an early election).