Following Thursday’s general election, Theresa May has seen her majority obliterated and her position as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservatives come under question. She has said that she will not resign as Prime Minister and has already gone about making a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party to prop up her minority government. However, some would argue that the Prime Minister’s position has become untenable, with another Conservative leadership challenge and possibly a general election looming.
This is because of the clear failure of the Conservative campaign, as she called the election to win a big majority and a mandate for Brexit, but ended up losing her working majority and having to make do with a hung Parliament. If one trusts what Theresa May previously said, the lack of a majority in the House of Commons would make it very difficult to pass Brexit due to opposition within Parliament. However, I’m sure Mrs May will soon come out and say that she is confident that she can deliver Brexit with a minority government and will do her best to save her reputation by negotiating the Brexit deal. Personally I believe that she will stay on as Prime Minister through the Brexit process because realistically the Conservatives could not displace her without calling another general election and the Conservatives will not want to risk another election now that the result is so close.
Just 56 seats now separate the Conservatives from Labour and now that Corbyn has shown that he can run a successful campaign and motivate young voters to turn out, the Conservatives will want to avoid another election at all costs in case even more Tory MPs lose their seats. The Conservatives have a reputation and track record for being ruthless with their leaders, their ousting of Margaret Thatcher coming to mind, but they cannot afford to remove the Prime Minister without going back to the electorate and risking losing power altogether. Some might argue that an election would not be necessary for the Conservatives to replace May; after all, May herself only took power after David Cameron resigned from office. However, realistically this would not be possible considering that the entire campaign of virtually every Conservative candidate in England and Wales was run on the basis of ‘strong and stable leadership’ and ‘a vote for me is a vote for Theresa May.’ So soon after an election it would be politically inconceivable for a leadership change to be made when the only mandate for the Conservative MPs was one for their leader.
Therefore, I can’t see any set of events – apart from in the unlikely event that May goes back on her word and resigns (who could imagine such a U-turn?) – which would lead to May being removed as leader before the Brexit negotiations have come to a close. Having said that, her reputation is currently in tatters and it is almost impossible to see how she could still be in charge of the Conservatives when it comes to running the 2022 General Election. The catastrophic Conservative campaign was so dreadful that even regular people with little or no interest in politics found themselves laughing at the monotonous repetition of ‘strong and stable’ and wondering why they never saw May running through fields of wheat on Jackass. Considering that the entire campaign was run on Theresa May’s personality, it is simply remarkable that May did not try to portray herself as more of a character. She came across as very bland on The One Show with her husband (the best it got was an anecdote about her shoes inspiring somebody to get into politics) while she simply refused to take part in TV debates with the other party leaders. To put things perfectly into perspective, May’s campaign was less successful than a Labour campaign which saw both the leader and the Home Secretary being caught out in interviews not knowing their figures.
With such a terrible campaign now on her record, she must try to build her reputation back up over her remaining time in office to see if she can salvage some credibility. The majority of Tory MPs, as well as a fair number of ministers, no longer have confidence in their leader and would not be happy to see her leading the party in the next election at this point, but she will be hoping that she can get a great Brexit deal which would restore the trust of her MPs. This would be very difficult considering she now has to do so with a minority government, but that could arguable result in a better deal. May will no longer be able to cater only to the Euro-sceptic branch of the party, ignoring the more centrist majority, so we are now likely to see a softer Brexit than was suggested and we would have seen if May had won her increased majority. On top of this, the DUP are likely to want as soft a Brexit as possible so that there is not a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Depending on your preferences for Brexit, this could easily be seen as a better outcome than there would have been had May got her own way.
If May does end up with a deal which is considered to be favourable by Conservative MPs and the wider public then she will have to decide whether to retire at at a high point or see if she would have the backing of her party to run for re-election. However, this would be no mean feat and, while I hope it happens, I can’t see it myself. With her current reputation, May has no chance of a long term future as Prime Minister but I would not go so far as to say her position is untenable. She now has a couple of years – assuming that the Conservatives don’t want to have another election straight away – to salvage her reputation and her future prospects with a Brexit deal. I would not expect May to be leading the Tories into the next election but she will not have given up hope.
What is important is that she puts her disastrous campaign behind her and focuses on getting the best deal possible for her own sake, as well as the nation’s.