Another week, another attempted removal of Theresa May. May appears to be, again, in deep trouble of her own making. However, if May’s premiership proves one thing, it’s that prime ministers, for all the sound and fury of unhappy MPs or macho manoeuvring ministers, are much harder to remove than they look. Rumours are easy to start but action is hard, partly because the rules for triggering confidence votes are made by the leaders.
Prime ministers go in one of three ways, more or less. They lose an election (John Major, Gordon Brown), are forced to step down (Tony Blair, David Cameron) or go at a time of their own choosing. Only Harold Wilson, long ago in 1976, stepped down when he really wanted. Tony Blair pretended he left the club of his own accord, but he was really bundled out by Gordon Brown’s bouncers. So that leaves just two options: exit by election or force.
The problem is that a well-protected leader, with no election near, can stay in power while MPs, the press and other critics busily kick away their support and authority. So here’s my three tips for a prime minister in trouble.
Remember to keep an eye over your shoulder
The great Anthony King warned prime ministers that trouble comes ‘over your shoulder’ from their back benches. It is there, and in the tea rooms and corridors, where rumours start and plots bubble. Just a few words can set off a frenzy of speculation about names on a list, ‘hats in the ring’ and ‘stalking horses’ (note that you can’t ‘stalk horse’ a leader under Conservative election rules).
But this over the shoulder fear has its limits. The very fact that the hard Brexit MPs keep threatening May’s removal shows that they can’t do it. The small rump of Brexit MPs are fast becoming the drunken bores in the pub, full of empty threats. They should perhaps tweet less about David Davis’ ability to destroy a tank with a carrot and learn to count and read some Shakespeare. Jacob Rees-Mogg, when not cavorting with supporters of Mussolini and the Far Right, needs to keep in mind that removing leaders is a difficult, messy and unpleasant business, not for the inexperienced. Like, I don’t know, changing nappies.
Remember not to try anything stupid
There’s a temptation when a leader is in deep trouble, for them to try a grand gesture or big event to ‘cut through’ (insert North Korea joke of your choice here, dear reader). This should probably be avoided. John Major, at the very lowest point of his pants being tucked in his vest, decided to resign as Prime Minister in 1995 to take on his critics, famously telling them to ‘put up or shut up’. This was the prime ministerial equivalent of a supply teacher saying ‘well why don’t you tell the whole class the joke and we can all have a laugh?’ No good could ever come of it. They challenged him, he won and they continued criticising him.
The same goes for something like a referendum, of course. And most of all, and this is very important, don’t call a snap election. Snap elections have now become the famous last words and the ‘hey everyone watch this’ boomerang of British politics. Whenever talk turns to them just calmly repeat, with arms folded, ’1923, 1974 (‘February’ add quietly if you want to be pedantic), 2017’. Each of these shock polls were supposed to boost the government majority. Each failed.
Remember things always get worse
For a prime minister, thing almost always get worse. You get less popular, you make more mistakes. Gordon Brown famously went from Stalin to Mr Bean. Theresa May went from Iron Lady Mark 2 to Maybot 2.0. Past decisions, like shredding Windrush documents or cutting police numbers, come back to haunt you.
To survive this arc, a leader needs to draw on all their reserves of cunning and skill and hope for a dollop of luck. May’s cunning and skill are roughly equivalent to those of a World War One general, constantly pushing the same futile, failed approach (at great cost to others) and expecting different results. She has only lucked out on the fact Corbyn keeps voting through her hard Brexit and that her rivals are utterly, utterly incompetent.
So what can a prime minister do? It’s important to remember that just by being in power there’s a lot a prime minister can do to roll the pitch. Clement Attlee once faced down a leadership plot, it is said, by calling in the conspirator and saying ‘I hear you want my job’. Perhaps the final word should go to Harold Wilson, Labour Prime Minister who won four General Elections (yes, Jeremy, four) and a referendum on Europe, all while possessing a KGB codename. His recipe for success was simply to be ‘an optimist with a raincoat’.