Theresa May’s embattled government has been rocked by two resignations in a week. Her closest ally — the First Secretary of State and Deputy Prime Minister Damian Green — is under investigation and there are renewed calls for her to sack her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Thursday’s cartoon in the Times newspaper showed her sitting alone around a coffin-shaped Cabinet table, remarking that it’s “business as usual.”
The PM, struggling to govern without an overall parliamentary majority, appears at the mercy of events beyond her control. The wave of allegations of sexual misconduct at Westminster has already led to the resignation of her Defense Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon. It is impossible to predict who will be next in the growing list of politicians accused of inappropriate behavior.
Her Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, the UK’s chief finance minister, is preparing to deliver a budget with little money to cheer the voters. The only domestic policies which the Conservatives have come up with since the election earlier this year — on issues such as energy prices or student debt — have been dismissed as pale imitations of those already proposed by the opposition left-wing Labour Party.
Hammond is facing calls to be “bold” — abandon austerity, invest in infrastructure to boost the economy and tackle the shortage of affordable housing — but has little room for maneuver.
Overshadowing all of this is Brexit. The crucial talks with the EU are bogged down in disputes over money and the structure of the negotiations themselves. The government badly needs a breakthrough.
The Brexit Secretary David Davis has said the two sides are within “touching distance” of agreement on the rights of EU citizens in the UK. But far more significant will be the decision at next month’s summit, when the 27 EU states will say whether they are ready to begin discussions on a future trade deal with the UK.
If they agree to do so, it will be a significant boost to the momentum of the talks. If they put off the decision until the next summit in March, it will be a further setback for the Prime Minister, calling into question her entire negotiating strategy.
May has yet to explain what she wants from a future trade deal. It is a sign of the uncertainty surrounding the whole process that she has had to confirm the exact time that Britain will leave the EU: 11 p.m. on March 29, 2019.
She is paralyzed by the deep divisions in her government, her party and the country over the future relationship with Europe. Decisions on replacements for disgraced ministers appear to be governed by the need to maintain the delicate balance around her Cabinet table.
Yet, for the time being, it suits both sides to keep her in place. Brexiteers, who want a decisive break from the EU and a new focus on global free trade, fear the whole Brexit process will be derailed if May is toppled. Those who voted to remain in the EU, and want to retain a close relationship, believe a leadership contest would almost certainly be won by a hard-line Brexiteer.
Parallels have been drawn with a previous British Prime Minister who also struggled to govern without an overall majority, with a party divided over Europe and battered by a series of sex scandals. It is worth remembering that John Major remained in 10 Downing Street for seven years until he was swept from power in Tony Blair’s landslide victory of 1997.
It is hard to find anyone at Westminster who believes May will lead the Conservatives into the next election. But, at the moment, there is no agreement in her party on who should succeed her. Future contenders are in no hurry to take over a shaky government and a tortuous Brexit process.
The one thing that unites the fractious Conservative Party is the concern that a leadership contest would lead to a general election and a Labour government.
After the Prime Minister’s disastrous speech at her party’s annual conference last month — disrupted by a protestor, collapsing scenery and her own incessant coughing — there was an attempted coup led by a former minister. It fizzled out when the Tories rallied round their hapless leader.
Expectations of May have reached such a low point that any success will be hailed as a triumph by her beleaguered party. If she can make some headway in the Brexit talks, come up with some imaginative proposals in the Budget and perhaps refresh her team with a further reshuffle, she may be able to remain in Downing Street and find a way through this crisis.
But there are huge potential pitfalls on each of those issues. Without a parliamentary majority, the government is vulnerable to defeat as it tries to get important Brexit legislation through parliament.
May’s party is growing weary of the catalog of disasters since she took the helm. One more could trigger a serious attempt to unseat her.
Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that some EU leaders are reported in British media to be preparing for the collapse of Theresa May’s government within months.