Theresa May can now measure her future as Prime Minister in weeks rather than days. Soon, it might become months. As the Queen’s Speech has been approved by the Commons, May can at least hope to make it through to the summer recess, which is due to start on 20 July.
A minority of Conservative MPs still believe this would be the right window for a leadership contest to choose May's successor. They believe her continuing presence – and her deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – is retoxifying the Tories, so they need to oust her quickly. But the majority of Tory MPs seem prepared to allow May to limp on. The likelihood is that she will still be there when the party gathers for its annual conference in Manchester in October.
It is not that May is doing well. But every week she survives prolongs her shelf life. Even long-standing allies admit she is there by default rather than on merit.
This a lowest common denominator government led by the least worst prime minister the Tories have got, propped up by the DUP in the least worst way of scraping together a Commons majority. It provides a kind of stability, but not stable government. To survive, the Tories will need to make lots of concessions like the last-minute one on funding abortions in England for Northern Irish women. It was a reminder that Parliament, not the Government, now calls the shots – especially when MPs form a cross-party alliance on an issue, as they will do on Brexit.
Only seven Tory MPs need to threaten to rebel to create a mini-crisis for the Government, and the DUP will not necessarily support it on everything. There will be lots of climbdowns, tactical retreats, parliamentary ambushes and sometimes government defeats.
Civil servants look back fondly to the Con-Lib Coalition of 2010-15, which had a five-year programme and a majority of 76. It did provide stable government; in contrast, May’s must live from hand to mouth, and could fall at any time. “No one knows what the hell is going to happen,” said one Tory MP.
May has no meaningful domestic agenda. The Tory manifesto has been shredded, with her flagship policies like grammar schools ditched. The best she can hope for is to see through the Brexit negotiations and hang on until exit day in March 2019. She has not given up on that being a worthy legacy. But it is a long way away.
The Brexit talks will be a nightmare. Her lack of authority at home will weaken her hand. May could find herself trapped between Tory Europhobes who bolster her for now but would force her out if she softened her hard Brexit, and Parliament, where there is a majority for soft Brexit.
She is still there because there is no appetite for a divisive Tory leadership contest that would inevitably be dominated by what form Brexit should take. Some Tories believe the differences are so irreconcilable that the party could even split. A bloody contest could not be avoided by anointing a unity candidate, as the Tories did in 2003 when Michael Howard steadied the ship after Iain Duncan Smith was toppled. Cabinet ministers admit they could not agree on a coronation now because of their divisions on Brexit.
There is no obvious successor. Boris Johnson, hated by the EU, and Amber Rudd, too pro-EU for many Tory MPs, would have a better chance of winning a leadership election after the messy Brexit talks are over. Although the opposite is the case for Philip Hammond and David Davis, one senior Tory said: “Anyone who jumps the gun will be crucified.” One reason is that installing a new leader would provoke demands for them to call a general election, which is what Tory MPs fear most of all.
Cabinet tensions were on public display this week when Hammond, the Chancellor, made clear he wanted a longer transition period than David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, to ensure a smooth EU withdrawal. The Cabinet also did the splits over austerity. May wants to end the cap on public sector pay rises and would have hinted so if she had been asked at Prime Minister’s Questions. Several Cabinet ministers agree but when they started to make this clear, Hammond dug his heels in, amid Treasury alarm at the unexpected post-election bills piling up. But the Tories’ survival instincts will surely ensure the deeply unpopular cap is lifted soon.
In three weeks, we have gone from a control freak government in which May’s close aides bossed cowed ministers around, to a breakdown of the discipline that any administration needs. “It’s unsustainable,” said one former minister. “She is not a real prime minister.” Downing Street has been hollowed out after several key staff resigned, perhaps sensing that this ship will not be afloat for long.
Labour is making the weather. It has got its act together as an effective opposition in a way rarely seen since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. It cleverly used the debate on the Queen’s Speech to make the Tories vote against ending the public sector pay cap. The rebellion by 49 Labour MPs against Corbyn’s deliberately opaque stance on the single market was not part of his script; the lesson is that oppositions cannot sit on the fence forever. But overall a newly-empowered Parliament is very good news for Labour, allowing it to make trouble for the Government. Corbyn won’t be interested in a cross-party consensus on Brexit. It is more likely to go badly than well, so why share the blame?
They sometimes say that when you hit rock bottom, the only way is up. But May’s position is so fragile that she can only flatline; her next move from being down will be out.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies