The Prime Minister is a dead woman walking. Her political career is stumbling along like a zombie, getting ever slower and more unsteady. Brexit negotiations are going badly and no-one is happy with the current situation. Theresa May is enduring attacks from her left and her right; her own party sees her as an obstacle and opposition parties are making hay from her failures. Even the shadowy spectre of UKIP has returned and Nigel Farage is once again making a nuisance of himself. So why is May still leader of the Conservative Party?
It’s an incredible situation. The UK is heading for a no deal Brexit, with all the economic woes that will bring, unless May can convince her party to accept a deal that effectively makes Britain an associate member of the EU, following the rules but with no right to make them. Two senior cabinet ministers have resigned – including the Foreign Secretary, one of the great officers of state. The minister in charge of Brexit said May was cocking it up. But there’s been no leadership challenge. Not even a hint of it in the air. How are we to explain this?
It could be cowardice. Boris Johnson may be May’s most likely successor, but does he want to be the man who leads the UK out of Europe? Of course not. He knows that would ruin his career. David Davis might have been expected to mount a challenge after he jumped ship, but he seems to have disappeared from the public eye. Perhaps he’s afraid voters will realise just how much of the Brexit disaster is his fault and how little difference a Prime Minister Davis could make.
Then there’s professional stalking horse Jacob Rees-Mogg. He’s in the press every other day hammering the PM on Brexit and making bizarre suggestions about how to solve post-Brexit problems (Let’s do things like we did during the Troubles!). He has a devoted following in the Conservative Party, Facebook meme pages dedicated to him, and super cuts of his ‘wit’ on YouTube. But a challenger for the leadership? No, Rees-Mogg remains May’s most disloyal loyal supporter.
What does all this mean? If May is doing such a bad job, if she’s endangering the future of the country, as the Brexiteers claim, if she’s so unpopular with the grassroots (as she appears to be), why on Earth has nobody challenged her? Is British politics merely jaded and sclerotic? Or is there a method to the apparent madness?
Johnson, Davis and the rest aren’t cowardly or incompetent. They know exactly what they’re doing. They know that Brexit cannot be a success, deal or no deal. They know the UK will suffer economically and that the wonderful trade deals with not materialise. They know that the UK’s standing in the world has declined, and will decline further as March 2019 approaches. They know the public will want someone to blame.
It’s not hard to picture. The UK leaves the EU on unfavourable terms. Protesters, on both sides, come out onto the streets to vent their anger. Finally, Theresa May is forced out of office and the new Tory leader, whoever it is, knows exactly how to pull the party together: Blame Theresa May. It will be easy for Johnson and Davis – their resignations set them up for this. May will become the target of ridicule and derision. All the tabloid bile directed at Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier will be re-directed towards the former PM. The Conservatives will bask in the catharsis of ostracising a failed leader and cleanse their own collective guilt about the Brexit catastrophe.
Theresa May must know this is her future. Brexiteers have been laying the groundwork for a purge like this for months. Johnson, Davis and Rees-Mogg have already stopped caring about the real consequences of Brexit; they’re focusing on how to capitalise on the disaster. Giving the public Theresa May’s scalp will be essential. But May doesn’t have to play their game. She doesn’t have to soldier on, knowing defeat is inevitable. Theresa May was forced to this pass by precisely the people who will destroy her for it. She should resign before 2019 and leave the vultures without a corpse to pick at. Let the Johnsons and Rees-Moggs own Brexit and see how far their cynical manoeuvres get them.