Why Theresa May's Conservative enemies cannot yet force her out

GettyBritish Prime Minister Theresa May.
  • Despite two high-profile Cabinet resignations and chaos within her government, Theresa May fights on.
  • David Davis and Boris Johnson both quit their roles as Brexit Secretary and Foreign Secretary within 24 hours.
  • Many Conservative MPs are unhappy with the prime minister’s plans for a soft Brexit.
  • However, they don’t have the numbers to defeat her in a leadership contest.
  • Plus, hard Brexit doesn’t have the support of a majority of MPs.
  • Here’s why, despite everything, May will probably remain as prime minister for the foreseeable future.

LONDON – Despite two Cabinet ministers resigning within the space of 24 hours – the first time this happened for over 35 years – Prime Minister Theresa May is still in office.

David Davis and Boris Johnson, who were arguably the Cabinet’s two biggest beasts, dramatically quit their roles as Brexit Secretary and Foreign Secretary, in protest against May’s plan for a soft form of Brexit.

However, like the black knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who famously declared “tis but a scratch” after having his limbs removed in battle, May addressed MPs in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, steely faced and resilient.

This resilience was evident at the 1922 committee of Conservative MPs in Parliament on Monday night where her party greeted her with a traditional banging of desks, albeit a far less thunderous ovation than at previous such meetings.

In a politely received speech, May warned her party that any further instability could lead to a general election with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in 10 Downing Street.

This is a message that got through to even her biggest critics, with leading Brexiteer backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg telling waiting reporters outside the room that he would not support any challenge against her. Even Johnson’s allies stepped back from outright mutiny, with one telling Business Insider that his resignation had been about changing “the policy not the person [in charge].”

May has lost a third of her Cabinet in just nine months and is now in her weakest position since she became leader.

And yet despite everything, May still clings to power with little sign yet that her critics are about to oust her. So why is this and could her critics yet find a way to force her out?

A drip, drip coup?

One theory being pushed by her biggest Brexiteer critics in the party is that if pro-Brexit members of the Cabinet resign one by one, then May’s already dwindling authority will be completely destroyed, and she’d have ultimately to step down.

“I doubt the prime minister will survive long,” a member of the Conservative Party’s pro-Brexit wing told Business Insider yesterday.

Of course it is still possible that May will ultimately decide of her own volition to quit. But there is little sign of it so far.

May reportedly had contingency plans ready in the event of Cabinet resignations and wasted little time in replacing Davis and Johnson. Their replacements, in particular Jeremy Hunt who moves to the Foreign Office, are determined loyalists who are likely to strengthen, rather than weaken May’s grip on power.

This leaves May’s biggest Tory critics only one option to bring her down: an outright leadership contest.

Under Conservative party rules, 48 MPs need to send a letter to Graham Brady, chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, calling for a contest. They would then need the votes of at least 159 MPs to actually get rid of her.

There was speculation on Monday night that Brady had received letters from 48 MPs. However, there was little sign that this was on the cards.

“There won’t be a leadership challenge now,” one Conservative MP commented as he left the meeting last night.

But Brexiteers don’t have the numbers

However, this may change and frustration with May’s rapidly softening Brexit policy could tip the balance.

The pro-Brexit wing of the Conservative party, which includes figures like Jacob Rees-Mogg, probably has 48 MPs who could trigger a leadership contest if they choose to do so.

A meeting of pro-Brexit Conservative MPs took place in Westminster at 14:30 on Monday afternoon, followed by a meeting of the Rees Mogg-led European Research Group later in the evening. They are certainly plotting something.

However, it’s very unlikely they’d have enough MPs – at least 149 – to actually defeat May in the event of a contest taking place. A spokesperson for the prime minister confirmed on Monday that she would contest any leadership challenge. She would likely be supported by a majority of Conservative MPs.

So, as things stand, although a number of Conservative MPs are clearly unhappy with how May is handling Brexit, they are a vocal minority, without the numbers to actually remove the prime minister.

The Brexiteers face another dilemma, too

It’s not just in a leadership contest where Conservative Brexiteers don’t have sufficient numbers.

Ultimately, the type of Brexit they want – a clean, hard Brexit in which the UK moves far away from the EU’s single market and customs union – simply doesn’t have the support of a majority of MPs in the House of Commons.

The majority of MPs are in favour of preserving frictionless trade across the UK-EU border and the open border on the island of Ireland. Neither of these things can be achieved under a Rees-Mogg style, hard Brexit.

As former Tory leader William Hague writes in The Telegraph on Tuesday: “The harsh truth is that once you have accepted that these are inescapable limitations, you are driven to the kind of Brexit proposals set out at Chequers.”

A cocktail of her own perseverance, parliamentary arithmetic and Conservative MPs who don’t want to see another leadership contest means May, despite everything, will almost certainly remain in office for now.

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