May Flunked Her Leadership Test, But Her Rivals Didn’t Fare Much Better

  • Potential rivals didn’t come out of Tory gathering unscathed
  • All the mishaps seen as a metaphor for her weak leadership

May Gets Pranked, Coughs, Gets a Sweet From Hammond

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s conference went wrong in ways she or no one could have imagined. But, the good news for her is that likely successors also came out tarnished.

Comedian Simon Brodkin hands May a P45 during her speech.

Photographer: Carl Court/Getty Images

May’s closing speech did succeed in winning activists in the hall back to her side, but their support was driven by sympathy. Video clips played across Europe and likely seen by Brexit negotiators in Brussels, showed her big moment overshadowed by a collapsing set after an intruder triggered a chronic cough that left her struggling to get words out.

Read our account of everything that went wrong with May’s speech

It wasn’t the reassertion of her authority that her allies had hoped for and that she needed in order to forcefully make Britain’s case with the European Union with divorce talks at a delicate stage. What might keep her hanging on longer is that in a party where the average age is 70 there is a dearth of fresh talent and likely candidates have wobbled.

Johnson and Davis attend the speech by Theresa May on Oct. 4.

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s flirtation with an independent Brexit policy irritated Tory lawmakers whose support he would need to become prime minister. When he made a flippant comment about dead bodies in Libya, some of his colleagues demanded May should fire him.

Meanwhile Brexit Secretary David Davis and Home Secretary Amber Rudd both needed colleagues to go out and explain stories about their future intentions.

“It’s a cabinet of midgets, pygmies and exploded volcanoes,’’ said Steven Fielding, professor of politics at Nottingham University. “It’s bad news for everyone.’’

Hardliners

Fielding added it’s also bad for the Conservatives when the star turn comes from an eccentric hardliner with a propensity to quote Latin. Jacob Rees-Mogg toured conference side meetings delighting audiences with his demand that Britain should go for a hard Brexit.

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Photographer: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

While May couldn’t be blamed for the disintegrating conference set -- or for having a cold -- there is a danger that the prime minister’s mishaps come to define her and confirm people’s perception that she’s a long way from the “strong and stable” leader promised in the campaign for the June election.

Newspapers from The New York Times to the Tory-leaning Telegraph described May’s performance as a metaphor for her leadership. The Telegraph went as far as saying “she is finished,” and reported that as many as 30 Tory lawmakers are said to be ready to sign a letter calling for her resignation.

Forty-eight are needed to trigger a leadership challenge, and there is a precedent that shows a British prime minister can limp on even when everything goes wrong. In the case of Gordon Brown, who was saddled with the financial crisis, he lasted three years in spite of terrible opinion polls and what critics called the “The Curse of Brown.’’

Precedents

The parallels continue. He was helped by the Conservatives in opposition having a charismatic leader who Labour lawmakers did not want to go up against. Similarly with May, members of her party are spooked by the popularity of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and don’t want to risk doing anything that might precipitate another snap vote.

Jeremy Corbyn

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

On top of that, any leadership contest would be likely to take months -- at a time when the country is in the midst of Brexit negotiations. Finally, there is no obvious candidate to replace her, and a contest would risk reopening the internal party fight over Brexit.

May’s Shelf life

How long she is safe is an open question and British politics have undergone a period of turmoil that has kept investors on their toes.

“There is a realistic chance that Brexit is hard and disruptive, partly to appease the Conservative Party’s hardliners,” John Roe, the London-based head of multi-asset funds at Legal & General Investment Management.

A second concern for Roe is that the “negative fallout” leads to a government helmed by Corbyn, a self-declared radical who vows to take into state ownership the railways and water companies.

The word is out already on whether a leadership challenge is imminent. Tory lawmaker Mark Pritchard, who is loyal to May, went on Twitter to attack what he called a “small number’’ of colleagues sending round texts sounding others out about May’s future. “There is no vacancy at Number 10!’’ he wrote.

Eurasia Group said in a note that “based on her very poor performance” it is downgrading the likelihood May will survive to finalize to see Brexit through to its end in March 2019 from 60 percent to 55 percent, “with serious downward pressure.”

May’s unhappy conference speech recalled another address from a troubled Tory leader. In 2003, Iain Duncan Smith had a virus he couldn’t shake that left him with a croaking voice for months, which he was forced to deny was evidence of nerves.

In a make-or-break speech to the Conservative conference, he announced that he was now “turning up the volume.’’ His aides engineered an astonishing 18 standing ovations yet he was forced out within weeks.

“This speech had very unfortunate parallels with Duncan Smith’s frog-in-the-throat,’’ said Andrew Russell, professor of politics at Liverpool University. “It somehow seemed to symbolize his difficulties. This just created the impression that she was struggling to stay in control – and largely failing.’’

— With assistance by Edward Ludlow

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