Theresa May, weak and stable prime minister
AND another one bites the dust. A week after Britain’s defence secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, resigned over a sexual-harassment scandal, Priti Patel, the international-development secretary, has resigned over an international-relations scandal. There may be more to come. Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, is yet again skating on thin ice. He incorrectly told a parliamentary committee that a British-Iranian, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, was “teaching journalism” while in Iran, giving the Iranian regime an excuse to add an extra five years to her prison sentence. Damian Green, the deputy prime minister, is fending off claims of sexual misconduct with all the legal and rhetorical force he can muster.
Can Theresa May hold on to her job as her government collapses into chaos and confusion? Nigel Farage, a former leader of the UK Independence Party, pronounces that she will be gone by Christmas. Some Tory MPs give her even less time. Leading allies of Jeremy Corbyn are confident that they will be in office within a year. European Union officials worry that they are negotiating with a government that is on the verge of vanishing.
A charitable view of Mrs May is that she is the victim of terrible misfortune. A less charitable view is that she is the victim of her own appalling misjudgments: embracing a “hard” Brexit after the narrowest of victories for the Leave side; triggering Article 50 without making adequate preparations (the equivalent of putting a loaded gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger, according to a prominent Leaver); calling a general election to increase her majority and then running the most dismal campaign in living memory. But either way, her premiership is turning into a tragedy of small disasters, punctuated by big disasters, punctuated by even bigger disasters.
Yet perhaps the most awful curse of the May administration is that it is doomed to go on—perhaps until March 2019, when Britain is due to leave the EU, or perhaps beyond. Friedrich Nietzsche liked to say that, “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” With Mrs May, what doesn’t destroy her premiership makes her more indispensable. The more fractious the political situation becomes, the more terrified the Conservatives are of defenestrating their prime minister and opening the way to a civil war or a general election.
Westminster’s sexual-harassment revelations have the paradoxical effect of making Mrs May’s day-to-day life more difficult but also strengthening her grip on power. The public (rightly) expects the work of driving away the sex pests of Parliament to be led by senior women such as Mrs May, on the right, and Harriet Harman, on the left. And any man who aspires to the highest office during the current crisis will (rightly or wrongly) be subjected to an unusual degree of scrutiny over his past behaviour and attitudes. David Davis, the Brexit secretary, once surrounded himself with female supporters in T-shirts with the phrase “It’s DD for me” emblazoned across their chests. Mr Johnson has an action-packed private life. When it comes to scandal-avoidance, you can’t do better than the vicar’s daughter who claims that the naughtiest thing she has ever done is run through a field of wheat.
Mrs May is also the beneficiary of the continuing civil war within the Conservative Party between Remainers and Leavers. This is partly because she straddles the divide, having voted to remain before delighting her party’s right wing with her “Brexit means Brexit” speech. It is also because she is the incumbent, making it impossible to replace her without a bloody battle over whether the successor should be a Leaver or a Remainer. The current favourite is Amber Rudd, the home secretary. But Brexiteers would be unlikely to tolerate the promotion of a prominent Remainer to the top job, particularly as they have lost one of their own from the cabinet, with the defenestration of Ms Patel.
Mr Corbyn completes Mrs May’s weak-and-stable formula. The stronger Mr Corbyn becomes, the more desperately the Tories cling to the status quo. It is not just that Conservative MPs are terrified that their party’s own civil war might lumber the country with the most left-wing leader since the English civil war (and that the Conservatives’ Northern Irish allies are even more terrified of a man whom they regard as little more than an IRA sympathiser). The broader British establishment shares the same fears. Iain Duncan Smith lost the Tory leadership because party donors stopped funding him. Sir John Major lost momentum because businesspeople realised that they could work with Tony Blair. Neither donors nor company bosses show signs of jumping ship from Mrs May to Mr Corbyn.
Too frail to fail
A glance at two previous administrations—James Callaghan’s government of 1976-79 and the Major governments of 1990-97—suggests that British prime ministers can survive the most extraordinary amount of humiliation. Callaghan quickly lost his majority and kept his government in office only by forming an unstable pact with the Liberals. Every day seemed to bring industrial action of one sort or another. Sir John was “in office but not in power”, as his chancellor later put it, from the moment that Britain was expelled from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday, September 16th 1992. He was tormented by rebellious Eurosceptics (the “bastards”), embarrassed by randy ministers and outmanoeuvred by Labour, and yet he managed to hold on to power until 1997.
The situation today is more imponderable than it was in the 1970s or 1990s. Britain faces bigger decisions and the atmosphere is more deranged. Mrs May is not as robust as Callaghan. She suffers from diabetes and looks tired and ashen. Yet Bagehot bets that Mrs May is safe in her gilded prison in Downing Street for at least another year: embarrassed by scandal, overwhelmed by problems, battered by crises but nevertheless clinging on to office, the great limpet of Brexit Britain.