Theresa May: How long can she last?

A feud­ing Tory Party.

Vocable (All English) - - Édito | Sommaire -

The for­tunes of Bri­tain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, ap­pear to be in the bal­ance. Bogged down in the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions, weakened by the snap gen­eral elec­tion in June where the Con­ser­va­tives lost their ma­jor­ity, she has many en­e­mies in her own party. Bri­tish weekly mag­a­zine, The Econ­o­mist, dis­cusses the fu­ture of her lead­er­ship and her own party, which is more di­vided than ever.


for a prime minister at the peak of her pow­ers, it would have been un­for­tu­nate. For one barely cling­ing to her job, it amounted to al­most cos­mic lev­els of bad luck. First, Theresa May’s speech to the Con­ser­va­tive Party con­fer­ence in Manch­ester was in­ter­rupted by a prankster who was some­how al­lowed to hand her a P45, a form given to Bri­tish work­ers when they get the sack. Then she suf­fered a cough­ing fit that not even a lozenge gal­lantly pro­vided by the chan­cel­lor of the ex­che­quer could halt. Fi­nally, let­ters from the slo­gan on the wall be­hind Mrs May be­gan drop­ping off one by one. Sit­com writ­ers would have thought it a bit much. 2. Af­ter call­ing an elec­tion this spring that stripped the Tories of their ma­jor­ity and cost 30 of her MPs their job, Mrs May al­ready faced a tough gig. Boris John­son, the for­eign sec­re­tary, had spent the pre­vi­ous fort­night tram­pling govern­ment pol­icy with ap­par­ent im­punity. Now her fluffed speech, which was sup­posed to re­assert her au­thor­ity, has re­vived spec­u­la­tion about how long she can last.


3. Even be­fore the fi­asco it was clear that the party was grow­ing tired of its leader and be­gin­ning to plan for the fu­ture. There were fre­quently empty seats in the main hall, where min­is­ters made mainly stale speeches.

4. By con­trast, packed meet­ings on the fringes were alive with de­bate about the hole the party is in, and how it should dig its way out. Mem­bers wor­ried a lot about their party’s make-up, which—as was plain to any visi­tor— is old and white. Young peo­ple were ap­proached with near-an­thro­po­log­i­cal fas­ci­na­tion. Fewer than one in four un­der-30s backed the Tories in the June elec­tion.

5. The party has also lost sup­port from eth­nic mi­nori­ties. Sam Gy­imah, one of its

Even be­fore the fi­asco, it was clear that the party was grow­ing tired of its leader.

few black MPs, urged Tories to con­cen­trate on val­ues, such as en­ter­prise and free­dom. Oth­ers blamed Mrs May’s harsh line on im­mi­gra­tion. Yet some of the Tories’ few gains in Eng­land in June came in places such as Mansfield and Mid­dles­brough, with big chunks of white work­ing- class vot­ers. 45% of peo­ple who voted for the UK In­de­pen­dence Party in 2015 backed the Tories in 2017, ac­cord­ing to YouGov. The party has yet to find a way to ap­peal to both groups. It is alive to the grow­ing anger about aus­ter­ity.

6. James Clev­erly, a bar­rel- chested sol­dier turned MP, re­called meet­ing a con­stituent who felt un­able to vote Con­ser­va­tive be­cause she was a nurse. “That was all she felt she needed to say,” he re­ported. When it comes to public fi­nances, Mr Clev­erly ar­gued that the Con­ser­va­tives sim­ply needed to re­mind vot­ers that Bri­tain’s fi­nan­cial mess was Labour’s fault. Mrs May dou­bled down on this theme. She was in­tro­duced by a video out­lin­ing the eco­nomic mess in­her­ited by the Con­ser­va­tives in 2010. But seven years have passed and such ex­pla­na­tions are wear­ing thin.


7. Jeremy Cor­byn haunted the event. The prime minister, chan­cel­lor and for­eign sec­re­tary re­ferred to Labour’s leader by name 20 times in their speeches, hav­ing barely men­tioned him at last year’s con­fer­ence. Yet the Tories still seem un­sure how to at­tack him. Mr Cor­byn was var­i­ously por­trayed as a pan­tomime vil­lain and a threat to the na­tion. Mem­bers mooed their as­sent as Mr John­son laid into “that NATObash­ing, Tri­dent-scrap­ping, would-be abol­isher of the Bri­tish army”. Philip Ham­mond, the chan­cel­lor, kicked off his speech with a his­tory les­son on Bri­tain in the 1970s and then a whis­tle- stop tour of coun­tries where so­cial­ism has brought mis­ery. Some min­is­ters left the im­pres­sion that their pri­or­ity was sim­ply to block Labour, rather than gov­ern. “Keep­ing Cor­byn out seems to me a duty of any sen­si­ble politi­cian, par­tic­u­larly a Con­ser­va­tive politi­cian,” said Damian Green, the de facto deputy prime minister, to a three- quar­ters empty fringe.


8. Brexit, skated over quickly by Mrs May, cre­ated the most ex­cite­ment among at­tend- ees, es­pe­cially when any­one sug­gested it would be hard, fast and easy. Yet on this sub­ject more than on any other it is prov­ing dif­fi­cult to agree on a strat­egy. The cabi­net is pub­licly split. And the mood of the con­fer­ence, at which del­e­gates cheered ref­er­ences to Agin­court and Water­loo, sug­gests that party mem­bers will be hos­tile to any leader who pro­poses to com­pro­mise.

9. The Tories still have some cause for op­ti­mism. Even af­ter weeks of in­fight­ing un­der a pow­er­less prime minister, the party is not far be­hind Labour in most polls. The next elec­tion need not come un­til 2022. “The pop­u­lar­ity of snap elec­tions may have gone down,” noted Mr Green. Fol­low­ing her botched re­launch, Mrs May re­ceived public sup­port from col­leagues.

10. Yet few have much en­thu­si­asm for her in pri­vate. Tory MPs’ be­lief that the party is too weak to bear an­other lead­er­ship con­test is be­ing tested to the limit. The prime minister sits atop a party that knows it must change ev­ery­thing from its poli­cies to, even­tu­ally, its leader.


Co­me­dian Si­mon Brod­kin con­fronts Theresa May at the Con­ser­va­tive Party Con­fer­ence, Oct. 4, 2017.

Peter Byrne/AP/SIPA)

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