When Theresa May’s Conservative government hobbled back into Downing Street, bloodied and bruised, after 2017’s general election, the smart money was on the British prime minister not lasting until Christmas. She had lost her parliamentary majority and with it, seemingly most of her authority. She faced the nightmare of negotiating a Brexit deal with the European Union while being unable to face down either the hard-Brexit faction in her own cabinet or the powerful Remain faction in parliament, which included some Conservative backbenchers. Instead of Britain being able to play off rival EU countries against each for its own benefit, as many predicted, it’s the EU that has been able to exploit UK divisions.
Compounding these problems, May’s government has endured a constant stream of scandals and displayed serial incompetence. It started with the leaden-footed response to the Grenfell fire in June 2017 and was evident again over the recent Windrush scandal. Four cabinet ministers have been forced out in recent months: Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, over his personal conduct; Priti Patel, the international development secretary, over her contacts with Israeli politicians; Damien Green, the first secretary of state, over misleading statements about material found on his computer; and Amber Rudd, the home secretary, over Windrush. For sheer variation in this multitude of cock-ups, only the dog days of John Major’s government in the 1990s comes close.
Amid this smell of decay, most governments could expect to find themselves 20 points behind in the polls, just as Major’s Conservatives were. And yet May’s party is four points ahead of the opposition Labour party. The predicted carnage facing the Tories in the recent local elections never materialised, even in London, where they comfortably held on to their flagship councils. All of a sudden, Conservative politicians have a spring in their step. Some commentators wonder whether May might survive to fight the next general election when the conventional wisdom had been that she would leave after navigating Brexit – if she wasn’t pole-axed by her own MPs first.
So, what’s going on? It’s not that May has suddenly transformed into a political colossus – although it’s important not to underestimate her strengths. She was widely praised for her calm but firm reaction to the Salisbury poisoning, and marshalling a coordinated international response to Russia. On Brexit, May secured a transition deal with the EU and has displayed enough flexibility to hold her party together – at least for now. Among voters there seems to be quiet admiration for her perseverance and willingness to soldier on. But she is not widely loved, has no ideological devotees, was badly exposed as a poor campaigner in the general election, and faced questions over her own competence during the Windrush scandal.
May remains prime minister because she is held in place by circumstances, both internal to the government and external. If there were a Conservative leadership election tomorrow, it’s very hard to predict who would win. Brexiteers like Boris Johnson, David Davis, Michael Gove and even Jacob Rees-Mogg might run but each would have difficulty reaching out to Remainers and those who favour a soft Brexit. But from the latter camp, chancellor Philip Hammond would face the opposite problem of appealing to Brexiteers. Rudd’s immediate chances look to be gone.
Against this backdrop, May appears the least-worst option – a reluctant Remainer who sees it as her duty to push through Brexit, while being forced to listen to her colleagues on how to do it. For many Conservative MPs and cabinet ministers, that might be better than an uncertain leadership contest that could hand the prize to someone detested by at least one side of the Brexit divide. In time, the new home secretary, Sajid Javid, might emerge as a unity candidate, but he is not yet a big enough beast.
Internally, May is held in place by the competing ambitions of her would-be successors and the delicate balance within her party over Brexit. But accidents can happen. It would take 48 Tory MPs to trigger a confidence vote in the leader, and some may already have voiced their desire for that. The argument over Britain’s customs relations with the EU after Brexit could tip a few more in that direction.
The external reason behind May’s continuing tenure is Labour’s failure to inflict serious electoral damage on the government. After eight years of a tired and stale administration that stumbles from one crisis to another, the opposition should be streets ahead in the polls. It ought to be making net gains of 500-1,000 council seats in local elections, as successful opposition parties have done in the past. Instead, and despite Labour’s performance in 2017’s general election, which was better than expected, there is an unmistakable sense that many voters remain wary of Jeremy Corbyn and his party. The Conservatives will not be punished electorally until swing voters feel comfortable voting the opposition into government.
In the years prior to Tony Blair’s Labour Party taking office in 1997, the opposition led the Conservatives by 20-30 points. Before Labour lost office in 2010, David Cameron’s Conservatives led by 20 points. These poll leads ultimately shrank but they were indicative of a change in public mood. That does not appear to be the case now. Despite the adulation of Corbyn by his supporters, voters remain sceptical, even suspicious. On YouGov’s tracker poll of who would make the best prime minister, Corbyn trails May by ten points.
The extreme electoral pressure that would likely prove fatal for May’s premiership is simply not there. Meanwhile, the clashing ambitions and mutual ideological hostility of her cabinet rivals ensures that they cancel each other out. These fortuitous internal and external circumstances allow May to keep the show on the road. But it’s an unstable state of affairs and she is always only ever one crisis from losing her job.