Sparks Fly: Is Theresa May Really In Charge Of The Conservative Party?

17/10/2016 12:35
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Last week I went to a dinner to KPMG Towers in Canary Wharf hosted by Transport Times. During the after meal chat I has asked for my view of the likelihood of Theresa May calling a General Election. As was appropriate for 9pm on a Tuesday I offered an unequivocal view; now, at 9am on a Monday and with classic esprit d'escalier, I want to present a more nuanced opinion.

This blog has been triggered by the Mail Online story yesterday that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, is or perhaps is not considering resignation because of the divergence between his views and many others in the Cabinet over Brexit. His nose has apparently also been put out of joint by the fact that he is not as close to the centre of power as previous incumbents of No 11 - a risk I flagged a fortnight ago when talking about the way power is being concentrated in a very small coterie around Mrs May. But the points made in the article about the way Brexit risks splitting the Conservative Party are much more important.

David Cameron's decision to grant a referendum on our membership of the European Union always looked like a reckless gamble. If we assume that the then-PM wanted to stay in the EU putting the decision in the hands of an angry electorate and then running a dismal and uninspiring campaign to Remain was, to say the least, dumb. But what is being revealed now was how pointless it was even in seeking to unite the Conservative Party. Unless either side won an absolutely crushing victory we were always destined to end up here: with a significant insurgent minority in the Parliamentary party able to claim to speak for around half the population. And that's exactly what Mrs May now faces.

I will stick by my post-prandial view that Mrs May will not want to call a new election, notwithstanding her small majority in Parliament. On the one hand why would she? Although there is only a vanishingly small chance she would end up post-election with anything other than complete dominance of the House of Commons being on the stump could throw up all sorts of unexpected problems. It may also force the Labour to become more effective and united - although it would be likely to consolidate the position of the left, whatever the result. It would give the SNP and potentially UKIP and even the Lib Dems new energy. And it would do nothing about the House of Lords. So what's the upside?

More to the point, how exactly would Mrs May overcome the Fixed Term Parliament Act and trigger a new vote? It's hard to see how she gets the numbers. Why would Labour want an election now; and the only way is down for the SNP. There are plenty of pro-Remain Tories who do not want to face the electorate for a while. So the FTPA would be a big obstacle to overcome. And I sense in Mrs May someone who doesn't want to look ever like she's pulling a fast one via some trick like a confected vote of confidence. All in all, I think she'll try if she can to 'go long'.

However, will she be able to? If the Remain majority in the House starts to restrict her freedom of manoeuvre as the Mail suggests they will she may think again. If she can't deliver Brexit to the satisfaction of enough people she may feel she is being forced to go to the country. If her Chancellor resigns that may trigger a crisis. She is far from being the master of her own destiny.

Thus far everything has gone Theresa May's way. Leadership of the Party fell into her lap, mainly because her rivals tried to be too clever by half while she remained steady. Her opponents in Labour seem determined to tear themselves apart. Within the Tory ranks there are few if any genuinely big beasts around whom alternative camps may form, even though George Osborne is trying to position himself as one with his customary lack of subtlety. But the Premiership now is a poisoned chalice, with no way of avoiding fights as Brexit is navigated.

The Remainers have one argument that is almost unanswerable: if Brexiteers believe in repatriating powers to Parliament it is hard to see how the Government can negotiate with Brussels without any oversight by Westminster. Instead of resisting Mrs May should be bold and embrace this challenge, setting out at least a framework, a direction of travel, something - and then demand her Party's support. If her MPs won't give her their backing she may have to take whatever she presents to the electorate. So yes, she might on that basis be forced into an early election. That's what a strong leader would do, and the one thing I am sure of is that Theresa May wants is to be remembered as a great leader.