How many political lives does a UK Prime Minister have? Theresa May has been running through hers at quite a speed, but she has seen off her opponents so often during the three-year Brexit saga, that it would be foolish to predict her imminent departure.
There were three times when her job seemed particularly threatened. The first was in June 2017, when she led the Conservative Party into a snap election, only to lose the slender parliamentary majority she had inherited from David Cameron. Mrs May survived as Prime Minister largely because there was no obvious rival in the wings, and – frankly – because no one else really wanted what was going to be a horrendously difficult and divisive job.
The second came last July, after she tried to secure agreement on her draft of a divorce agreement with the EU. Within hours of the meeting – at her country house, Chequers - some of the most senior Brexiteer ministers resigned: the Brexit Secretary and chief negotiator, David Davis; his deputy, Steve Baker, and the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. Boris Johnson went so far as to describe the UK’s status under the proposed “deal” as that of a “colony”.
Under normal circumstances, the departure of so many senior key ministers would have brought calls for the Prime Minister to go. But these were not normal circumstances. The Cabinet was weakened, but Mrs May survived.
And the third time that the Prime Minister’s job seemed in danger was in December, when MPs gathered enough signatures to mount a formal vote of no confidence in her leadership. She won easily, but it was less of a victory than she had hoped for and her authority was diminished. On the plus side, the party rules state that there cannot be a second leadership challenge within a year, so she had bought 12 months of relative security.
You could perhaps add a fourth occasion when Theresa May’s tenure was at risk. This was her massive defeat in the Commons this month, when MPs rejected her Brexit Bill by a record 230 votes (202–432). But that vote was deceptive, because her opponents were divided. Half voted against the Bill because they did not want any form of Brexit; the other half because they wanted a more complete break with the European Union.
So the Prime Minister Theresa May has survived, showing what even her sworn enemies concede is remarkable resilience. But, as Brexit Day – 29 March – comes closer, there is a new sense that her days at No 10 are numbered. Potential rivals can be glimpsed “on manoeuvres” (as they say in the political jargon of Westminster), and the imminence of the Brexit end-game could mean the end- game for her, too.
Three scenarios can be envisaged. One: she calls a general election in an attempt to break the impasse on her Brexit deal. Two: she accepts the deal is doomed and resigns rather than calling either an election or a second referendum. Three: she manages somehow to get a majority for a form of her Brexit legislation, and decides – as the UK leaves the EU by amicable agreement – that her job is done. There would then be a contest for the Conservative Party leadership.
May’s most obvious rival remains the former Foreign Secretary and two-term Mayor of London, Boris Johnson (54). Indeed, without his late decision to campaign for Leave, some think the referendum vote could have gone the other way. He has been relatively quiet after leaving the Foreign Office. But he suddenly turned up, on the eve of the parliamentary vote, to denounce the Brexit Bill in a speech to factory workers in the Midlands. Whether he has any chance of fulfilling his long-held ambition to be prime minister is another matter.
Anyone who aspires to the top job must first become leader of his or her party, and Boris - as he is always known - will find this very difficult. He is hugely unpopular among his fellow MPs, who regard him as disloyal, unreliable and a law unto himself, and it is a vote of MPs that decides the shortlist. Were he to reach that shortlist, he might well win in the vote of party members, but the chances of his getting that far seem very low.
Who else? Well, there is Michael Gove (51), a leading Brexiteer who ended Boris Johnson’s leadership hopes after David Cameron resigned, while briefly staking a claim himself. Currently environment secretary in Theresa May’s government, he has shown himself to be a competent and sometimes creative minister, while remaining loyal to Mrs May. He gave a fiery speech in her defence at the end of the recent no-confidence debate – a performance that many saw as an audition for party leader.
The most ardent Brexiteer in contention would be Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has become the group’s de facto leader and spokesman. But there are two factors against him. On the one hand, he has said he does not want the job (which, of course, could change). On the other, he is a very conservative Conservative, who might appeal to sections of the party base, but lacks the wider appeal needed to win a general election.
Another contender might be Amber Rudd (55), currently Work and Pensions Secretary. Like Michael Gove, she is well regarded as a minister and has remained loyal to Mrs May, while also showing an independent streak. But she comes with two liabilities: she voted Remain in the referendum, so is mistrusted by Brexiteers, and she kept her seat at the last election by one of the smallest majorities in the country. Unlike in many countries, ministers in the UK have to be Members of Parliament.
Another Remainer, who has been sounding less Remainer-ish recently, perhaps with a view to higher office, is Jeremy Hunt (51), who took over from Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. Before that, he was an unusually long-serving health secretary, but he has found it harder to make his mark at the Foreign Office. How much popular appeal he would have among party members – or among voters more widely - is another question.
According to those likely to know, there are 20 or more MPs harbouring ambitions to be leader, with only half a dozen having a realistic chance. One of these might be Tom Tugendhat (45), chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, a former army officer and a hardliner on Russia, who has said that the next party leader needs to be from his generation. He voted Remain, but has since emerged as something of a Brexit realist, calling for compromise on something like a “soft Brexit”.
There is, however, a further scenario, which could follow a general election. As part of the bargain she struck to win her vote of confidence as party leader, Theresa May said she would not lead the party into a new election. But would the Conservatives, even under a new leader, necessarily win an election? If they lost, there would then be a new Prime Minister, but it would not be Theresa May or her successor as Conservative Party leader, it would be the old-style Labourite Jeremy Corbyn. And that would be a whole other story.