Theresa May is doomed. Probably. Possibly.
Having lost her parliamentary majority in the biggest political gamble since the Brexit referendum, it seemed to be a matter of months, even weeks, until there was a new face in Downing Street. And yet she remains, seemingly with plans to govern for a full term.
Theresa May need not look far for inspiration. Every Wednesday, across the dispatch box, she will see somebody who, not long ago, was suffering from appalling poll ratings and under pressure to quit from his own MPs. But those looking for reassurance in Jeremy Corbyn’s position are misguided. While his power comes from a huge democratic mandate from his party, Theresa May’s does not. And much of the support that she did have has been either eroded or alienated over the course of the election campaign and in subsequent weeks.
There have been attempts by the Prime Minister to change her way of operating. First to go were the co-chiefs of staff, the architects of Theresa May’s rise and (surely inevitable) fall. Since their departure there have been no shortage of articles slamming both Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, and the style of leadership they brought. The bloodbath in the rest of the policy unit has been more akin to a Shakespearean tragedy than modern politics.
Strange as it may seem though, her Party’s defeat at the polls last month is helping her keep her job. For many Tory MPs the only thing they want less than Theresa May in Number 10 is Jeremy Corbyn to replace her. Labour is ahead in the polls, with momentum (and Momentum) behind them. Another plebiscite would not only annoy the already election-weary public, it would likely result in yet more painful Tory losses. A weak and wobbly prime minister is surely more attractive than that.
Nevertheless, there have been inevitable rumblings deep within the Tory machine. The combination of a disastrous general election campaign and a Prime Minister who ruled by writ have left Theresa May with precious few allies, and a Party that is intensely angry. There are many within her own cabinet who would happily see her gone if it meant their own ascension to power.
So who are the contenders?
2005’s nearly-man David Davis is apparently on manoeuvres, though whether this is true or just a rumour spread by one of his rivals is anybody’s guess. Still, he recently topped a poll of Tory activists and a successful approach to Brexit negotiations would put the current Brexit Secretary in a strong position in a future leadership race. While there would be worries about his age – he’d be 73 if this parliament lasts until 2022 – he would still be an attractive placeholder until one of the youngsters is ready to take the reins.
Of course Boris Johnson would be in the mix, but the former grassroots darling’s star has somewhat faded. After the torpedoing of his last attempt by cabinet colleague Michael Gove it is difficult to see him having the support for the top job.
Amber Rudd had also been touted as a possible successor, especially after a strong showing in the leadership debates as May’s stand in, but a wafer thin majority could ultimately put paid to her ambitions.
Chancellor Philip Hammond may have a few admirers, but after criticism of Theresa May’s lack of emotional intelligence, it is hard to imagine a man whose maiden speech focused on the careful management of capital receipts having the requisite dynamism to rebuild the Tory brand.
Last but not least among the old guard is new First Secretary of State Damian Green. A strong showing as stand-in for May at PMQs did him no harm, but as a staunch ally of Theresa May his chances look slim.
Increasingly, Conservatives are looking beyond the Cabinet to find the rising stars. These have become more vocal in recent weeks, agreeing to events and panels they would not have done two months ago. Dominic Raab, Sam Gyimah and Rory Stewart are all being talked about with varying levels of excitement. So too Gavin Williamson, the Chief Whip with a tarantula on his desk and a web of contacts on both sides of the aisle. It could well be that the big beasts foster these candidates in a phony war, before swooping in to take the crown for themselves.
Against this soap opera there is the small matter of navigating the biggest change in Britain’s constitution in almost half a century. Where minority governments would normally try to pass as little legislation as possible, Theresa May (or whoever replaces her) must force through not one but eight separate Brexit bills – against an opposition that will certainly vote against them in their current form. Tory divisions on Brexit have not gone away either, with Remainers now able to force through amendment after amendment to cripple Theresa May’s vision for life outside the EU. What the beleaguered prime minister needs is a few quiet months to let all this blow over. She isn’t going to get it.
Naturally it is an exciting, and potentially embarrassing, time to be working in politics. What is certain one moment is preposterous the next. With the most fragile government since 1979 there will be no shortages of twists and turns, and no shortage of egg on face for blog writers and political consultants. I’ll take mine scrambled.