Red lines or empty threats

It’s been a tough week for Theresa May. Monday and Tuesday saw the fallout of Amber Rudd’s departure as Home Secretary. Wednesday saw the postman drop off a 30 page document from Brexiteers demanding departure from the customs union – followed by the Brexit Cabinet sub-committee failing to agree to the Prime Minister’s preferred model of a ‘customs partnership.’ And this is all before the results of local elections that could inflict further pain on Downing Street if the Conservatives suffer significant losses.

Inevitably, there’s been further speculation as to Mrs May’s position. In times past, a succession of body blows like the PM has seen in the last week would put a premiership in significant jeopardy. But these are far from normal times. So, how significant has the past week been for Theresa May, what does it mean for the Government’s agenda, and could there be a change in Downing Street occupancy in the near future?

The dangers for the Prime Minister are plentiful. In Amber Rudd, she not only lost a key deputy but also a Remainer who may have been more amenable to the PM’s ‘customs partnership.’ Instead she’s got Sajid Javid – most definitely not the Prime Minister’s man at the Home Office based on the Cabinet sub-committee meeting yesterday (in which he would not endorse the customs partnership), and who – albeit only a few days into his new role – seems keen to draw a clear distinction between his tenure as Home Secretary and that of one Theresa May. This poses additional difficulties for the Prime Minister. Amber Rudd may have resigned having ‘inadvertently misled MPs,’ but Windrush is part of Mrs May’s legacy as Home Secretary. If future issues from 2010-16 come to light, the buck is more likely to stop at the PM’s desk than Mr Javid’s.

And this is before we get to Mrs May captaining a ship with a seemingly and increasingly mutinous crew. The demands of Brexiteers this week were timed to coincide with the Cabinet sub-committee meeting, but would have been emboldened by Mrs May’s lack of strength (would we have seen that document had Mrs May been in her early 2017 pomp?). Senior Cabinet members, such as David Davis, has indicated they’d resign if the UK remains in a customs union in fact or in name. And no option yet proposed by the British government has anything resembling endorsement from the EU, with the incredibly sticky situation of the Irish border entirely unresolved.

A difficult set of local election results will pile further pressure on Theresa May, but will it be enough to see the knives out for her rather than left in the pockets of those grumbling their discontent?

Underpinning everything is the fact senior Tories will be incredibly wary of the consequences of Mrs May being ousted as PM. Given the Conservatives do not have a Commons majority, it would be difficult for a successor to claim a mandate to govern – particularly given Mrs May herself rose to the premiership through a leadership contest rather than a general election. The public might be sick of election campaigns, but there could be a sizeable push for a return to the ballot box. And that’s a fight the Tories – despite Labour’s own difficulties – would be hard pressed to win.

Coupled to the dangers of another election for the Tories is the absence of clear and (at the moment) willing alternatives as leader. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris (because of course he is), Michael Gove, Gavin Williamson and Sajid Javid have all been touted as having the ambition to lead the Party and country. But would they really want to at the moment? Do they want to inherit the difficulties of Brexit and divisions in the ranks that are miring the PM? Or would they rather play a longer game and seek higher office when circumstances are more advantageous?

And therein lies the problem, and the question of whether any of the red lines of recent days – Cabinet members suggested they might quit, or the demands of the Brexiteers – are serious and unmoving with consequences. Or whether they’re largely empty threats towards a Prime Minister in considerable difficulty but perhaps lacking any substantive and imminent threat to her position.

Were there a parliamentary majority in favour of leaving the customer union, no challenges in the Lords over the EU Withdrawal Bill, and a clear leadership challenger to Mrs May, things might be different. But there isn’t. And this means the Conservatives remain at risk of inertia unless something happens to break the current logjam.