Why May’s Departure Date Isn’t Really Her Decision

With the kind of specificity that British newspapers seem to manage best in the quiet days of summer, the Sunday Mirror tells us that Theresa May has “penciled in” Aug. 30, 2019, as the date she will leave office.

Leaving aside that the story is based on guesses by Conservative Party lawmakers rather than anything the prime minister has said, the problem here is the timing of May’s departure is one of many things that is only partially in her hands.

In 300 years, arguably seven prime ministers have left the job at the time they chose. Most are forced from office by the voters (like Gordon Brown), their party (like Margaret Thatcher) or circumstances (like David Cameron). The best they can hope is to manage their faster-than-expected descent, as Tony Blair did.

After this year’s election disaster, May won’t be allowed to fight another contest. She’ll go when the Tories feel they can manage another contest, and the election that would likely follow, when keeping her is judged to be more painful than losing her, or when a successor correctly judges they have the best chance of supplanting her.

For those who want to argue which prime ministers did best at choosing their departure dates, the Tory lawmaker and journalist Danny Finkelstein suggests: Pitt the Elder, the Earl of Derby, the Marquess of Salisbury, Ramsay Macdonald, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson. Wilson, the most recent of those, was forty years ago. And that was after unexpected election victories. May has only an unexpected near-defeat under her belt.

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