Theresa May’s Job Is Safe (for Now)

Few people take the prime minister seriously anymore. But the Tories are divided over Brexit, the economy—and who’ll succeed her.
Photographer: Han Yan Xinhua/Eyevine/Redux

Asked who would be the best prime minister this month, British voters put “not sure” in first place. On this, if on nothing else, the country is in agreement with Conservative lawmakers. The Tories have lost confidence in their leader, Prime Minister Theresa May. The problem is they don’t know who should replace her.

May’s authority has been hanging by a thread since the evening of June 8, when the snap election exit poll revealed she’d squandered an apparently impregnable lead over the opposition Labour Party and lost her parliamentary majority. In November alone, May has seen two cabinet ministers resign over separate scandals and her gaffe-prone Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson again stick his foot in his mouth on the subject of a British citizen imprisoned in Iran.

All of this would be easily fixed but for a much larger complication. That, of course, is Brexit. It’s not simply that Conservatives can’t agree on the right strategy for Brexit. They can’t even agree on the destination. Is Britain’s economic future best served by close proximity to the European Union or by distance?

Splits over Europe, sex scandals, and sudden ministerial resignations are all evocative of the Tory government of John Major, which in 1997 lost power with the party’s worst election result in a century and a half. “To those looking in, I fear this must look at times very like the pre-1997 crisis,” says George Freeman, a Tory lawmaker who chairs the party’s Policy Forum, although he draws a crucial distinction. “Then the parliamentary party was exhausted, burned out, and behaving badly. Now we have a parliamentary party bursting with talent, ideas, and energy. But the cabinet is locked down in the almost impossibly difficult task of negotiating a Brexit deal.”

Featured in Bloomberg Businessweek, Nov. 20, 2017. Subscribe now.
Photographer: Hans Christian Plambeck/Laif/Redux

The aim of David Cameron, May’s predecessor, when he announced a referendum on EU membership, was to settle the issue within his party. His hope was that a decisive vote to stay in the bloc would silence those Conservatives who had made life so difficult for Tory leaders over previous decades. Instead he ended up empowering them, splitting the party, and destroying his own premiership.

Even among the so-called Brexiteers, who backed leaving the EU, there’s division on the shape of the future. For some senior Tories, the appeal of leaving the EU is the opportunity they see to turn Britain into a lightly regulated and taxed country that’s open to the world. But the campaign for Brexit, needing support from lower-income voters, promised more money for the state health service and tighter controls on immigration. Now, as they search for the trade deals they promised, Brexiteers are being challenged over whether to accept what opponents say are lower standards of food safety, for example, and looser requirements for toy manufacturers.

But the Brexiteers at least agree that Brexit is a good idea. Far more fundamental is the problem faced by those Conservatives on the other side of the argument—chief among them the prime minister. May, like half her cabinet, including her deputy and her chancellor of the exchequer, has as the central goal of her government a policy that 18 months ago she opposed—one that, in her pre-referendum words, would damage “Britain’s security, prosperity, and influence in the world.” In October, May was asked whether, having campaigned against Brexit last year, she would vote for it now if there were another referendum. She was unable to answer.

This contradiction could help explain why the Conservatives struggled in June’s election. Labour was led by Jeremy Corbyn, an old-school socialist who’d exhausted his party’s patience. He had a long record of friendliness with groups including extremist Irish Republicans and Hamas. And yet May’s warnings about Corbyn sat uneasily next to her determination to deliver Brexit—something that both the British business class and her own Treasury warned would damage the economy. The Conservatives, having decided to adopt a revolutionary policy, were looking a lot less conservative.

“Central to the Conservatives’ success among working-age graduate professionals in 2010 and 2015 was their reputation as a safe pair of hands on the economy,” says Matt Singh of Number Cruncher Politics, a wonky U.K. blog. “Brexit, and the consolidation of the vote around the two main parties, meant a conflict between retaining existing supporters looking for security and continuity, and attracting new voters looking for radical change. To pull it off would have required a very strong campaign.”

That wasn’t what the Conservatives had. May’s awkwardness—she’s stiff in social situations, and even her staff adopted the nickname “Maybot,” originally bestowed by journalists—and her aggressive tone toward those who questioned the wisdom of Brexit didn’t help. Neither did the unexpectedly strong campaign run by Corbyn. Having made herself the focus of the campaign, she had no one else to blame when it only barely avoided defeat.

Since then, May’s political life has become about surviving short periods: making it to the end of the day or the end of the week or the end of the month. At one point during her party conference at the start of October, it looked as if she might not even make it to the end of her own keynote speech as she succumbed to a disruptive cough and the interruption of a prankster. In what is likely to become the metaphor for her time in office, she croaked on, while behind her pieces of the set began to fall onto the stage.

There are ways in which May’s weakness helps her. When she announced earlier this year that she would like to lead the Tories into another election, her lawmakers just laughed. They’re sure she doesn’t mean it, and in any case they won’t let her, so there’s no great urgency to unseat her. Instead, some see her role as absorbing as much of the unpopular news about Brexit as possible—that, for instance, it will cost, rather than save, Britain money—before she’s thrown overboard. Britain’s parliamentary system means that the fall of May needn’t mean the fall of the Conservative government. Even if Labour demands another election, Conservatives are under no obligation to agree. They can go until 2022 before facing voters again.

Tories hope this will give them time to finish up Brexit. But even if it does, it may not mean Brexit will be finished with them. It’s now eight years since Britain was last in recession, and a slowdown might arrive soon. If one comes in the next four years, it’s likely to be blamed on Brexit, justly or not.

And then there’s the cultural problem: By making themselves the party of Brexit, the Conservatives magnified their existing position as the party of older people. “Age has replaced class as the great dividing line,” says Robert Colvile, director of the Centre for Policy Studies. “The young are burdened with debt, their wages are stagnant.” This is a big problem for the Conservatives, according to Singh. “Going forward, the number of graduates will increase, and younger cohorts will take the place of older generations,” he says. “It’s like a trading position with very negative carry.”

Colvile has been working with newly elected Tories to find ways of overcoming this divide and sees reasons to hope. “What’s striking is genuinely how many of them now see housing as the big issue—bigger than Brexit in many cases,” he says. That’s an opportunity for the Tories: The shortage of housing affordable to young people is at least a problem a determined government can solve.

There are other reasons many Tories remain optimistic. They point out that, despite their challenges, they’re still polling very close to Labour. It’s also possible Corbyn has hit his ceiling. In four years the Conservatives will have a new leader, and Corbyn’s novelty will have worn off.

The Labour leader seems to be the one thing Tories agree on. Against Corbyn, “the Conservative Party is absolutely united,” Freeman says. “We recognize that we have to deliver a Brexit that works for the whole country—or risk the unimaginable consequences of a hard-left government.”

    BOTTOM LINE - Theresa May’s hold on the prime minister’s seat is weak, but while Conservatives figure out how to put Brexit behind them, she’ll probably remain in it.
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