TUESDAY WAS the most humiliating day in a prime ministership scorched by humiliations. Theresa May’s voice was so hoarse that she could hardly make herself heard. Philip May, watching his wife from the visitors’ gallery, looked thoroughly miserable. Storm Gareth rattled the roof of the chamber with Shakespearean fury. When it came, the defeat by 149 votes was a surprise to even the most pessimistic government flaks.
In normal times the prime minister would have resigned immediately, whisky glass in hand. Mrs May lost her authority some time ago. Cabinet ministers openly defy her and backbenchers merrily do their own thing. Now she has lost her raison d’être as well: the deal that she spent two-and-a-half years negotiating has crumbled on contact with parliamentary reality.
But these are not normal times. The prime minister still believes, to the incredulity of those around her, that one more heave will do it. Her party has no clear mechanism for getting rid of her. Having survived a confidence vote among Tories at the end of last year, she cannot be challenged again until December. Britain is consequently in a political no-man’s-land, with a prime minister who has no authority and a band of assassins who have no bullets.
The result is one of the most bizarre leadership races in the Conservative Party’s history. All leadership races are odd because “he who wields the knife seldom wears the crown”. The party’s current rules add to the oddity because candidates have to appeal to two very different electorates. MPs whittle down the list of challengers to two and then the party’s 125,000 members make the final selection. But this race is particularly surreal. The 14-odd candidates who are jostling for position have to be prepared for Mrs May to resign within the next 24 hours but at the same time keep their powder dry in case she clings on for months.
The best way to make sense of the field is to think in terms of one of the Westminster village’s favourite devices, a grid. There are two types of candidate: party-wide sorts, who can appeal to Brexiteers and Remainers alike, and factional candidates, who have the strong support of one or other side of the referendum divide. There are also different levels of seniority, from big beasts who have held the great offices of state, to middling beasts who have a bit of experience but a high opinion of themselves, and a few mini-beasts.
The two leading cross-party candidates are Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, and Sajid Javid, the home secretary. They both campaigned for Remain but believe that the government has a duty to honour the referendum result. They have lots of experience, Mr Hunt previously having been health secretary for nearly six years and Mr Javid also having run the departments of business and housing. They also have the vulnerabilities that come from long experience. Mr Hunt has made plenty of enemies in the public sector and Mr Javid’s decision to remove the citizenship of Shamima Begum, a British schoolgirl who went to join Islamic State in Syria, has become even more controversial since the death of her baby. But they are both making serious attempts to rethink the meaning of Conservatism in an age of populism. Mr Javid would also allow the Conservative Party to “hit the triple”, with the first Jewish prime minister (Disraeli), the first woman (Thatcher) and, with him, the first Asian.
These two potentially unifying figures will have to contend with factional candidates. Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, is the Remainers’ most powerful weapon, a polished performer who has the sort of jolly-hockey-sticks manner that goes down well with the grassroots. But the party is so thoroughly Brexitised that it is hard to see her winning. The Brexiteer faction has a more crowded field, including Boris Johnson, a former foreign secretary, Dominic Raab and David Davis, former Brexit secretaries and, at a stretch, Liz Truss, the chief secretary to the Treasury. After what they take as Mrs May’s betrayal of their cause, the Brexiteers will move heaven and earth to get a true believer on the shortlist. The only question is who it will be.
Mr Johnson was forced to withdraw, humiliated, from his leadership bid in 2016. Too many Tory MPs had too many doubts about his character. Mr Raab is doing his best to seize Mr Johnson’s mantle, making speeches outlining his philosophy and running a social-media campaign, “Ready for Raab”. But he is small beer by comparison. He sat in the cabinet for only a few months, as the second in a line of ineffectual Brexit secretaries, and comes across as ideological, blinkered and throbbingly boring. Pro-Brexit MPs are in such a frenzy that they may be willing to forgive Mr Johnson’s personal failures for the sake of the cause. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the powerful European Research Group of Tory MPs, has given him the nod and ambitious younger MPs such as Johnny Mercer have attached themselves to his coat-tails. If he can make it onto the shortlist he is probably home and dry. Some 24% of members support him, according to the latest survey by ConservativeHome, an activists’ website, and their mood is becoming more bellicose as Brexit goes from bad to worse.
Remember the Johnson
There is a strong case for being done with Mrs May. She has led the Tory tribe into the wilderness and refused to listen to advice from better guides. Mr Hunt or Mr Javid would do a better job—at the very least they would be able to clear out the accumulated dead wood from the cabinet, such as Chris Grayling, the hapless transport secretary, and promote a new generation. But the lesson of the past few years is that things can always get worse. Mr Johnson is too big a risk to take: a man who bears comparison to Donald Trump in his willingness to play to the lowest common denominator—and, it must be said, in his raw political genius. The Labour Party rolled the dice in 2015 and ended up with Jeremy Corbyn. Does the Tory party really want to test the populist gods and run the risk of Mr Johnson?