Difficult, or just difficult to get rid of? May clings on
or that she has been given “10 days to save her premiership”. But the idea that the prime minister is facing an imminent leadership challenge is being dismissed as hyperbole by senior Tories. One MP who would expect to be aware of a plot if there was one said he was mystified by the reports, and said No 10 does not believe that any coup is imminent.
The Sunday Telegraph said that Tory Eurosceptics were preparing to launch a leadership challenge in the event of May watering down her plans for Brexit. But the European Research Group, the influential and well organised caucus pushing for a relatively hard Brexit, is said by one source to be “absolutely solidly behind Theresa”, not least because the Brexiters are worried that if May were to go, she could be replace by someone more pro-remain.
On Wednesday, May will have to deliver a major speech at the start of the Queen’s speech debate, and the crunch will come when MPs come to vote on it about a week later. But, for all the speculation about this being a make-or-break moment, Downing Street is very confident of winning the vote and, with the DUP expected to vote with the Conservatives, May should get her Queen’s speech through with a majority of about 13.
May took steps towards restoring her post-election reputation with her party last week by giving a sincere and contrite speech to MPs at the backbench 1922 committee, but since then the Grenfell Tower tragedy, and her apparently tardy and emotionally wooden public responses to what happened, fears have been renewed in the party that she is temperamentally unsuited to be prime minister.
“It has underlined that Theresa is aloof, impersonal, and finds it difficult to empathise. She has not reacted in a way that would have come easily to Tony Blair or David Cameron,” said one backbencher.
Some of those who work with May accept that she just does not connect emotionally with the public in the same way that many other politicians do. But they also believe that some of the criticism levelled against her over the Grenfell Tower disaster has been outrageous, saying that when she met firefighters, not victims, on the Thursday, she was only following precedent and acting on the best advice of her security team.
May’s plight is highlighted by YouGov favourability polling figures published on Wednesday. In April, the prime minister had a net favourability rating of +10 – a figure calculated as those who say they have a favourable opinion of her, minus those who say they have an unfavourable opinion. Meanwhile, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was languishing on -42. But now Corbyn is up to 0, and May’s ratings have collapsed to -34.
Much as the Conservative party might like to replace May with a popular and dynamic leader, the problem remains, as one MPs put it, “that there’s no obvious successor”. Unless May were to resign, a leadership contest would only happen if 15% of Tory MPs – 48 of them – write to the chairman of the 1922 Committee demanding one, and there is no evidence that anything like that number are in favour.
Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, is the most high-profile potential leadership candidate and, unlike some of his rivals, he does have the remnants of a campaign team that could be activated on his behalf. But, mindful of what happened when his predecessor as the member of parliament for Henley, Michael Heseltine, challenged Margaret Thatcher, he is acutely aware that disloyalty gets punished in the Conservative party and has been urging MPs to get behind May.
It is also unclear how any successor could shift party policy on Brexit without triggering a damaging party split. May’s premiership could still have some time left to run.