The summer recess is a time for MPs to rest and recharge themselves for the autumn debates. It’s a chance to talk and discuss local and national issues with the people themselves. People will be looking to blow off steam and assert their opinion. With that in mind, MPs will be listening carefully to their constituents. For Theresa May, their opinions may provide some indication of her chances of survival.
Last year, Theresa May was a strong prime minister at the head of a united party focused on Brexit. Now, she is a weak, unpopular puppet of a disunited party with a cabinet tearing each other apart. In light of that, many pundits are anticipating her demise. The only question is when?
As we saw last month, the snap election has diminished Theresa May’s authority. As such, cabinet ministers have begun conducting their own private campaigns. The Conservative conference may prove to be a series of leadership pitches. Such public disagreements show that the Conservatives are deeply and fatally divided over Brexit.
Now Theresa May has to tackle a crucial dilemma. Can she risk further disharmony by keeping her enemies close at hand? Or does she let them loose into the backbenches and let them wreak havoc? Does her statement of ‘no such thing as an unsackable minister’ hold up to scrutiny?
For the most part, the cabinet will be confident in keeping their jobs. Cabinet ministers are bound by collective responsibility, binding them to support all government decisions. As such, they are obliged to remain loyal to their political leader which means that, if they’re fired, they are free from the need to agree with the PM. Boris Johnson would certainly enjoy sniping at Theresa May from the backbenches.
On the other hand, the last few weeks have shown that unity in the cabinet is an illusion. Theresa May is unable to stop her cabinet from publicly disagreeing with her or each other. Britain still lacks a clear vision of a post-Brexit world and hostile briefings simply add to the confusion. Time is running out for a good deal. Even with the DUP on board, the Conservative have little chance of getting meaningful work done. Public arguments over Brexit positions and future trade deals is just the tip of the iceberg.
For Theresa May, her main focus is holding on to power. This means blocking her enemies and making friends quickly. The ‘reshuffle’ after the election was hardly a reshuffle and Michael Gove’s reappearance is a small indication of how desperate she is. Perhaps she hopes that Gove will see off any challenges from Boris Johnson. Whatever the case, she can only provide short-term relief from a leadership contest.
Damien Green is May’s best chance of finding support for her position. He, as Deputy Prime Minister, is popular in the party and notably reluctant to take over as Prime Minister. In addition, the chief whip, Gavin Williamson, will also be key to maintaining support for the beleaguered Prime Minister.
This is what makes the summer recess important. Theresa May needs the support of her backbenchers. After a bruising election campaign, backbenchers simply want to get on with their jobs. Electing a new leader will likely mean a new election which may end in a narrow defeat for the Conservatives. Jeremy Corbyn has stepped up the pressure by touring recent gains and vulnerable seats. Despite their recent divisions, Labour is ready for another early election.
Many hope to find a new sort of candidate from the backbenches. This means waiting over the next few years to let others have their moment in the limelight. For this to happen, Theresa May needs to stay in power for at least another. This gives her new MPs time to gather momentum and prove their worth.
But Theresa May cannot rely on the support of backbenchers forever and her enemies know it. MPs will be listening to their constituents and their concerns with great care. If people decry the cabinet splits and press for the show to go on, Theresa May can rely on backbench support at least until next year. But if people turn away from the party and rail against the unpopularity of the government, then the rules change.
Overall, the recent election has deeply unsettled the Conservatives and the unease is growing with Labour’s summer tour of Conservative seats. Theresa May’s weakness and unpopularity add to a sense of decline. The Party looks divided and Brexit threatens to tear it apart.
Theresa May is only in power only because no one wants another election. Her backbenchers will defend her for now, but only if the public allows them to do so. Those looking to replace her will be watching the public’s mood closely.
As such, Theresa May will be waiting for the end of summer nervously. Her cabinet is already at war. If the backbenchers desert, nothing can save her.