16th June 2017
An election that was meant to secure Theresa May a healthy majority with which to deliver Brexit, has ultimately lost the Prime Minister her Commons majority, highlighted her personal failings and exposed her party’s electoral fallibility.
Having formed a Government with the promised, though as yet unconfirmed, support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Theresa May’s initial challenge was to face down her own party. The resounding support she won at the first meeting of the 1922 Committee for her contrite message that “I got us into this mess and I’m going to get us out of it” should not be seen as an explicit endorsement of the PM’s long-term viability. The Conservative Party is well versed at circling the wagons at a time of crisis. The risk of a second election is far too great with Jeremy Corbyn’s momentum at its zenith.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing May will be to stabilise and recover her reputation without her most trusted advisers. Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, the PM’s Co-Chiefs of Staff, were quickly defenestrated following unprecedented criticism of their role in the Tories election failing. While their resignations may be cathartic for the Conservative Party, they spell serious trouble for the PM. Since entering Downing Street, May has ran Government through an incredibly tight funnel. It remains to be seen whether she can manage going forward without her Praetorian Guard.
The man with the unenviable challenge of replacing NiFi is former Housing Minister, Gavin Barwell. He was one of a number of Ministers to lose their seats unexpectedly at the last election, in addition to Ben Gummer (Cabinet Office), James Wharton (International Development) and Jane Ellison (HM Treasury). These losses heralded a junior ministerial reshuffle which saw May seek to placate both wings of her party with promotions for Brexiteers - Dominic Raab, Steve Baker, Steve Barclay - and Remainers – Mark Field, Claire Perry, Alastair Burt – alike.
The change at the junior ranks hasn’t been reflected at Cabinet level. During the election campaign it had been widely briefed that Theresa May would implement a wide-ranging reshuffle once she had been returned with an increased majority. Philip Hammond, Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadsom and Liz Truss were all rumoured for the chop. Having lost her whip hand, Theresa May has made only fleeting changes to her top team. Truss and Leadsom have been moved sideways, while May’s long term friend and political ally Damian Green has been promoted to de facto Deputy Prime Minister.
With her top team finalised, the Prime Minister must consider what legislative programme she can offer in her Queen’s Speech. The coming parliamentary session will inevitably be dominated by Brexit. The Great Repeal Bill is the most commonly discussed in the media, but there will need to be a myriad of Bills to legislate for Britain’s exit from the EU. The PM needs to show she has a social agenda outside of Brexit, but her Commons majority affords her little room for manoeuvre. Manifesto commitments on social care, fox hunting and ending the universality of winter fuel payments will likely be dropped in the face of public opposition. Instead, we expect May to return to previous themes such as housing, mental health and technical education for young people.
Theresa May must now seek to persuade her party and the country that she can deliver the strong and stable leadership, however unlikely, that she promised during the campaign. The next phase of her premiership can be split into three distinct, but overlapping, stages. The first runs from now until party conference. She must pass a Queen’s Speech and prove that she can command a commons majority. The second phase runs parallel with the EU negations. Balancing the polarised view of the House of Commons while proving her authority to European leaders will be key if she is to get a Brexit deal she can proudly take to the country. Should she succeed in this daunting task, her final phase will be convincing her party that she is the right leader to take them into the next election.
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