How long can Theresa May survive? The answer may be found in a broader question: how long can the Conservative Party decline continue before fearful MPs take action?
Edmund Burke is the toast of conservative thinkers. And they would embrace without hesitation his definition: “Party is a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.”
But today it is hard to see the joint endeavour upon which the Tory party is united and what exactly it promotes, still less to divine the particular principle upon which it is agreed. This is the issue at the heart of a shattering dissonance now evident across what could loosely be described as the “conservative media”. There is no evident agreement in the Cabinet, still less in the party at large, as to what it believes or stands for, or on what sort of Brexit settlement it is seeking to achieve.
Barely a week now passes without some fresh despair over the PM’s performance. Lack of core belief and values is a common theme. Absence of a credible or unifying leadership contender is another. Seldom has a government seemed so vulnerable to everyday events and unable to show competence.
In the words of Conservative MP Nick Boles, there is “a timidity and lack of ambition about Mrs May’s Government, which means it constantly disappoints”. The verdict of veteran backbencher Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson, was more succinct: “Dull, dull, dull.”
On what might have been considered supportive websites such as Reaction and Conservative Home, there is frustration, anger and outrage over Mrs May’s record in office. This week, the normally supportive Daily Telegraph carried on its centre page opinion column a coruscating 1,000-word article by its prominent commentator Juliet Samuel. “The reality,” she wrote, “is that the Prime Minister is now a Wizard of Oz figure. Every now and then, the curtain falls away and the appalling reality becomes apparent. Then, the Tories close ranks. ‘Pay no attention to that person behind the curtain!’ they cry … [But] talk to people at any level of the Conservative Party. You can ask MPs, council leaders, party officials, local associations and you get the same description. There’s no direction. Nothing is happening. The operation is headless, clueless.” This despair goes wider than a few discontented commentators. Across the broader party, there is a draining of membership and support.
We’re well used to rows and division within the Labour Party, the near-disappearance of the Greens, and the write-off car crash that is UKIP. But the internal collapse that is most striking is that unfolding on the Conservative Right. As of last summer, the Labour Party had 552,000 members. The Lib Dems had 102,000, the SNP 118,000, the Greens around 46,000 and UKIP 39,000 (in 2016) – a figure that almost certainly shrunk since then. The last published figure for the Conservative Party – in 2013 – was 149,800. Today it is widely thought to have fallen below 100,000, with some estimates as low as 70,000.
Membership across the UK over the past year is believed to have fallen by about a quarter. But calculating a membership figure is difficult, given the lack of a central register of members. Normally such a collapse in support would be batted away as a result of “the economy, stupid!” Given falling real incomes, government spending cutbacks and fears of a Brexit downturn, such a sour mood could only be expected.
But how bleak are our economic fortunes? Figures this week showed UK unemployment falling further to 1.44 million – a four-decade low. Numbers in work have hit a record 32.2 million – and with 810,000 vacancies waiting to be filled.
Recent Office for National Statistics’ figures showed UK household spending last year hit its highest since before the financial crisis: between April 2016 and March 2017 average weekly household spending was up four per cent on the previous corresponding period. Car purchase and package holidays abroad were notable stand-outs. The latest CBI manufacturing survey shows rising business confidence and export order books. Meanwhile UK Government borrowing fell to £2.6 billion last month, with the total for the year so far at its lowest since 2007 and on course to come in at £40.6bn for the financial year – some £9bn below forecast. There’s plenty here – on top of former Treasury minister (and Remain voter) Lord O’Neill’s assertion that growth forecasts will be upgraded – to give the incumbent administration some comfort. But none of this softens the picture of a feeble, fumbling and visionless premiership. Indeed, it seems to have an uncanny knack of turning all and every misfortune into its own unique fault.
Security failures, the appalling Grenfell Tower inferno, the daily bulletins of the “NHS in crisis”, the sex scandals and the Carillion debacle; “Mrs May”, wrote Juliet Samuel, “has had no answer to these events. She makes no interventions or arguments. She hopes, always, to muddle through.”
And as if these were not enough, there has been the near continuous briefing wars between Cabinet ministers – the latest between Boris Johnson and Chancellor Philip Hammond on extra money for the NHS – the botched reshuffle and ministers defying a move, and the bungling over the Irish border issue. Now she looks to have been played by French president Emmanuel Macron to take more Calais migrants.
As for the Brexit negotiations, ministers are publicly challenged about turning the UK into an EU “vassal state” with an outcome little different to what we have already. Little wonder a reader wrote to the Telegraph in despair: “I suspect that, like many Conservatives, I would find it difficult to put my cross in the event of an election.” So far the critics have confined themselves to outbreaks of frustration and anger – well short of a unifying alternative leader and even further short of the 48 letters to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, needed to trigger a vote of no confidence.
What is keeping the dissidents in check, for now, is the spectre of election defeat by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party – a prospect thought impossible less than a year ago. Here is a Prime Minister cowering behind a crumbling wall, hoping somehow she can avoid further disaster and muddle through, unaware that the only thing keeping the wall in place is the fragile lateral tension of the brickwork. That she has lasted so far is astonishing. That she can last out 2018 would defy belief.