POLITICS
29/01/2018 11:51 GMT

How Safe Is Theresa May From A Tory Leadership Challenge - HuffPost Verdict

Brexit splits erupt into the open.

Bloomberg via Getty Images

K E Y   P O I N T S

  • Theresa May will hold a Brexit ‘war cabinet’ today amid turmoil within her party.

  • Brexiteer Tories are gunning for Chancellor Philip Hammond after he said he wanted only ‘very modest’ changes in the UK’s relationship with the EU.

  • Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the influential European Reform Group of Brexiteer MPs, has suggested Hammond should be sacked.

  • Pro-Remain Tory minister Claire Perry revealed to have described Brexiteer colleagues as ‘swivel-eyed’.

  • Ministers this week will be given the first economic analysis of different options for exiting the European Union.

  • The EU (Withdrawal) Bill hits the Lords on Tuesday, starting months of detailed scrutiny.

  • Nick Timothy, May’s former chief of staff, criticises ‘strategic confusion’ at heart of government.

  • Backbench rebel Heidi Allen tweeted May must ‘get a grip and lead’.

  • Senior MP Rob Halfon has warned party needs ‘to have less policy-making by tortoise and (more) policy-making by lion’.

  • Johnny Mercer MP said there was a risk of a Jeremy Corbyn government ‘if we don’t get our shit together’.

  • Justine Greening, who quit the cabinet rather than be moved, has told Tory MPs to stop ‘soundings off’ against May.

A N A L Y S I S 

From Paul Waugh, Executive Editor, Politics, HuffPost UK

So is the PM’s future in No10 really at risk? Well, one senior MP joked to me yesterday that her trip to China this week had echoes of “Thatcher in Paris, 1990, while the cat’s away...” (don’t forget the ex-PM was in France at the height of the Tory rebellion against her back in London, just before she was ousted).

But two things have changed in recent weeks. The first is that Tory Brexiteers really fear for the first time that the two-year ‘transition’ will result in a ‘Brexit in name only’ – where the UK continues to accept Brussels immigration, rules and jurisdiction, while paying billions. The second is Theresa May’s botched reshuffle and lack of vision has prompted wavering MPs to write (if not yet submit) letters demanding a vote of no confidence. Put the two together and that’s a lethal cocktail of dissent.

The letter process means this is a one-way ratcheting, and things can only get worse,” one MP tells me. But just how much worse? On one scenario, May boldly announces she won’t fight the 2022 general election. That may buy time to get her beyond Brexit Day next year and calm a lot of MPs who believe that under a new leader they can win a majority against Corbyn.  

The alternative scenario is that May sits tight and hopes Cabinet and backbench unity holds over Brexit. Even if a vote of confidence is triggered, if none of her potential successors wants a contest right now, she could possibly win it by a big margin. But with a working majority of just 13, the real damage would be that she could never be sure ever again of getting anything done in Parliament. 

T O O  M A N Y  T W E E T S

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W H A T    N E X  T 

 

Forty-eight Conservative MPs, 15% of the parliamentary party, must submit letters to Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 committee, in order to automatically trigger a leadership contest.

Only Sir Graham knows just how close we are, but multiple reports in recent days have suggested it is edging closer to the threshold. I’m told more want to submit letters today, even though some colleagues are asking them to hold off to see if May does indeed announce she won’t fight the next election. “It’s her last great opportunity to set her own departure, without making it random or messy,” one MP tells me. “The letter process means this is a one-way ratcheting, and things can only get worse.” (Only one letter has ever been withdrawn, once sent, and that was under David Cameron).

Even if this current squall dies down, each fresh new blow-up risks adding to that letter-writing total. Even if she does ‘get a grip’, she’s caught on the hook of the party’s relentless internal rules on leadership contests.Another opinion poll put the Tories neck and neck with Labour this weekend, May’s allies point out. Still, all PMs in trouble know the pressure is off when the Commons isn’t sitting and MPs can’t plot among themselves. Which is why No10 will be very grateful to make it to the February 8 half-term recess next Thursday.

But if the local election results are a disaster in May, and Eurosceptics feel sold out over a status quo Brexit, the PM’s fate may well be out of her hands. That’s when those who want to succeed her really will have to make judgement calls as big as hers.