Why May might survive as Tory leader
The Conservative party conference is over and a European summit looms for Theresa May. FT editor Lionel Barber and political commentator Janan Ganesh discuss the prospects for the UK's embattled prime minister.
Filmed by Rod Fitzgerald. Produced by Daniel Garrahan
The Conservative Party conference is over and a European summit looms for Theresa May. What prospects for Britain's embattled prime minister? Here with me is Janan Ganesh political commentator for the FT. Janan?
I think twice in recent months Theresa May has looked like she was on the absolute precipice of losing her job, just after the June general election, and then last week after her catastrophic through no fault of her own party conference speech. And I was thinking, what is the thing that is saving her? And to a certain extent, it's that no one is overwhelmingly sold on any of the alternatives, whether it be Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, or Philip Hammond, the chancellor, or conceivably Ruth Davidson, who leads the party up in Scotland.
But really that the machine element that preserves her in place is that the party knows it's divided over Europe. And even if it had the best leader possibly imaginable that divide would remain the same. So why go through the chaos of a leadership election?
But I'm going to pick you up, because you wrote this week in a really excellent column that Theresa May shouldn't have triggered Article 50, setting in motion this Brexit divorce without having united the party.
I mean, it's impossible, isn't it? These two sides are-- the gap is unbridgeable.
Yeah, if it's an unbridgeable gap, then the argument I made is a little bit cheeky and cynical.
Cheeky and cynical?
Well, in the sense--
Exactly. Who would think it? In the sense that that divide would never be bridged and so you would never invoke invoke Article 50, and we'd all agree to forget about it. But the fact that she did invoke it means that the debate is still live in her own party, which means they know that a change of leader is a cosmetic solution to an essentially ideological problem. And that is perversely what keeps her in place.
So the biggest mistakes she made, from a national interest perspective, which was to trigger Article 50 before an election, before any agreement was reached within her own party even, ends up being the thing that secures her. When really she-- in most circumstances, she'd be gone by now.
Should she prompt a cabinet reshuffle? Either before or more likely after the European summit?
I don't think there's an immediate governing case for a cabinet reshuffle. There is a political case, which is that it would strengthen her, show her as someone who can still make executive decisions, and is not just the kind of phantom or hologram of a prime minister. The worst situation though would be to embark on a reshuffle, realise you don't have enough political capital to do something dramatic, like demote the foreign secretary.
Do you think she should demote or sack Boris Johnson? Because of his straying over the line-- you know, there was a pretty clear line on Brexit after the speech.
Yeah, I think there is a--
There is a case for demotion. And it's not just his personal disloyalty, but also his performance as foreign secretary, which, at least from the point of view of various foreign capitals in Europe and beyond, has not been good enough for a British foreign secretary. But the worst thing would be to attempt something like that, to then realise that she doesn't have the political capital to execute it, and end up with a much more limited and perfunctory reshuffle. That, if anything, signals weakness and desperation.
And very quickly in terms of the European summit, is this heading for a bad outcome?
Theresa May has made conciliatory noises over the past few weeks, the Florence speech which was one example of that. I sense a slightly more promising mood in the negotiations than even a month ago. But there's still the big question of the divorce bill. And the Europeans are not willing to go much further without that being settled.
Now England are through to the World Cup, Premier League coming up. Is Arsene Wenger in office, but not in power?
He is. What he and Theresa May have in common is that they both seem to be taking us out of the European elite.
Janan Ganesh, thank you so much.