These are troubling times for Theresa May, British Conservative Party leader. A disastrous snap election result earlier this year has severely undermined her authority in Parliament by taking away the Conservatives’ majority, impeding May’s ability to negotiate the best post-Brexit deal with the EU. More recently, her leadership has been beset by a series of mishaps, including concessions made to the opposition Labour Party, and a dreadful speech given at a party conference, during which a member of the public made his way through the crowd, before handing the Prime Minister a P45 (termination of employment) form live on television.
Theresa May’s image has suffered as a result – she is seen by many, including some in her own party, as a feeble leader. This is precisely the opposite of what Britain needs as it tries to secure its future outside of the European Union. In the best interest of the country during these crucial and uncertain times, May should step aside as Prime Minister to allow for fresh leadership.
Where Did It Go Wrong?
Earlier in June 2017, May called for a snap general election, hoping to increase the number of Conservative MPs in parliament. Having replaced David Cameron as Prime Minister last year, she wanted greater credibility and political might at the Brexit negotiating table. However, things went horribly wrong: the Conservatives (Tories) lost 12 seats, while the Labour Party gained 29. The Tories remained the biggest party in government, but no longer held the majority of seats. They therefore had no legitimate mandate to form a government, in what is known as a “hung parliament”.
Historically, such types of government have never had much success. After a hung parliament in February 1974, the new government only lasted until October that year before another election was called. After the recent 2010 election, a coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats ended in disaster for the latter; the Lib Dems went from having 57, to eight seats in the following 2015 election.
Despite the disappointing snap election result, Theresa May immediately made clear her intention to stay in power. Within three weeks, she struck a deal with a small pro-Brexit Northern Irish party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The two parties agreed on a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, whereby the DUP would back the Conservatives in key votes, thus allowing the Tories an effective majority. In return, May promised an additional £1bn in funding to Northern Ireland over the next two years, to fund infrastructure, healthcare and education.
Who are the DUP?
The Democratic Unionist Party is known for its strong conservative views. It is opposed to abortion, for example, and leading party figures have included climate change deniers and creationists. Furthermore, the DUP is adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage – A former party health minister said in 2015 that children raised in homosexual relationships were more likely to be abused or neglected, for which he later apologized. For some, May’s decision to cut a deal with a party so extreme in its views made her seem opportunistic, even desperate to cling on to power. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said the deal was “clearly not in the national interest.” However, this was just the beginning of May’s problems.
Tough Talks And Tedious Dinners With The EU
As the Brexit negotiations slowly progress, the picture from Brussels so far has not been promising. Talks were first delayed by Tory party in-fighting, which saw backbenchers calling for the sacking of Boris Johnson, foreign secretary and prominent party figure. Then came further disagreements over the border status between Northern Ireland (part of the Brexit-voting United Kingdom), and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain a member of the EU after 2019. Most recently, negotiations came to a complete deadlock over the sum of Britain’s “divorce bill” from the EU (the money it is expected to shell out to cover remaining financial obligations to the union – approximately €50-100bn).
To top it all off, according to recent press leaks, Theresa May reportedly “begged” the President of the European Council for help during a private dinner they shared. The President is also said to have told aides that May “looks like someone who can’t sleep a wink.” The Prime Minister was quick to dismiss the leaks as “Brexit gossip”, but true or not, they have hardly helped to support her public image.
A Conference Speech to Forget
May’s problems seemed to come to a head during the 2017 Tory Party Conference. As she attempted to deliver a speech on energy policy and housebuilding, she could barely get her words across as she battled a cough, eventually being handed a supportive cough sweet and glass of water from the chancellor, Philip Hammond. Later in her speech, comedian Simon Brodkin managed to push his way to the front of the crowd, handing May a mocked-up resignation form. Theresa had no choice but to accept it, brushing off the embarrassment by saying that she would give it to Jeremy Corbyn. Then, as if things couldn’t get any worse, letters from a campaign slogan hanging up behind her began to fall off the wall. Oops.
If she were to step down, who would replace Theresa May as Prime Minister? Currently, there are three likely frontrunners – Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson, and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
1) Philip Hammond
Hammond was appointed chancellor by Theresa May after she became Prime Minister. The two have a good relationship, having studied at Oxford together before entering the House of Commons at the same time. Hammond is a popular member of the Conservative party; his nickname is said to be ‘Spreadsheet Phil’. However, in a recent interview, he used an unfortunate choice of words to describe his EU counterparts, branding them “the enemy” – a regrettable error of judgement that will not have helped his chances of securing the top job.
2) Boris Johnson
Ex-London Mayor and familiar face in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson has acted as foreign secretary since July 2017. As a devoted ‘Brexiteer’, he is an obvious candidate for Prime Minister. However, Johnson is a polarizing figure in parliament and the wider public – popular with some, seen as aloof and even ridiculous by others. He recently caused chaos with a 4000-word manifesto for The Telegraph, some of which directly contradicted the government’s vision for Brexit. It was a bold move – making clear his potential as an advocate for an alternative Brexit, but also presenting himself as a dissident party member. He has made more than one blunder as foreign secretary, among them joking about people killed in the Libyan civil war, and making comments about a British citizen jailed in Iran, a gaffe which could lead to her sentence being extended by five 5 years.
3) Jacob Rees-Mogg
The final choice for Prime Minister is Jacob Rees-Mogg. Well-known for his pompous traditionalism, Rees-Mogg has made a name for himself through a combination of trademark double-breasted suit jackets and seamless use of antiquated latin terms during debates (he famously broke the record for the longest word said in parliament – floccinaucinihilipilification – during a parliamentary discussion on the EU). Recently, Rees-Mogg shocked the public announcing the name of his sixth child: Sixtus Dominic Boniface Christopher. Despite being an ultra-conservative, his long career in parliament and surprising cult following among young people make him a significant frontrunner for Prime Minister.
None of these options are particularly appealing alternatives for the Conservative party. The Economist recently published an article last month calling for a complete cabinet reshuffle, suggesting the culling of Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond, amongst others, in favour of a new set of MPs who share the same vision for Brexit. Still, the issue remains that Britain needs a fresh leader: it would bring renewed energy to the Brexit talks and send a signal to Brussels that Britain really is serious about getting a good deal, and quickly.
A Final Note – Labour Uprising?
Lack of choice for a viable new leader from the Conservative party could bring with it greater support for the opposition Labour party. This would not be surprising given recent developments in parliament. Hoping to combat Labour’s firm grip on young voters, last month May announced a freeze on university fees at £9,250 per year (Labour had promised to abolish tuition fees as part of their 2017 manifesto). Later, following pressure from Jeremy Corbyn over the cost of a flagship Tory policy called the Universal Credit Helpline, May relented and made the service free. Given these concessions and the rising number of voters who disapprove of May’s handling of Brexit, Labour could be set to make substantial gains in the upcoming 2022 election.
Reports have suggested that May intends to resign in August 2019 – handily just before facing voters for a second time. Not only is the future of her Conservative party at stake, but so is the future of Britain: the party must have a change of leadership. They could come from the cabinet – May’s inner circle – or equally from the ranks of the backbenchers. Opinion polls are notoriously unreliable, so instead we can look to betting markets: factoring in most recent events, Betfair is offering 2/1 odds that May will be replaced as Prime Minister before the end of the year. And the odds that Boris Johnson will take over? 5/1.
Editor: Shivang Mahajan