News analysis

Theresa May reduced to stopgap leader

In a bid to prove that she remains in charge despite failing to win a parliamentary majority in last week's British general election, Prime Minister Theresa May is expected in Paris today for talks with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Yet no number of foreign summits will protect Mrs May from charges that domestic electoral failure means she is now, at best, a stopgap leader soon to be ditched by her own Conservative Party, a "dead woman walking", as one of her main critics cruelly put it.

After being entrusted last Friday by Queen Elizabeth II with forming a government, Mrs May has made big concessions to opponents within her party, since the Conservatives have only 318 MPs in the country's 650-strong Parliament, eight seats short of the minimum overall majority, so her survival depends on ensuring that every single Conservative MP remains supportive.

Two of the Prime Minister's closest advisers who were responsible for devising her disastrous electoral campaign were asked to leave. Instead, Mrs May appointed Mr Damian Green, a moderate Conservative politician, as First Secretary of State, a title rarely used but one that grants its holder broader coordination responsibilities across government.

Mr Green's appointment is intended to reassure lawmakers that the days when government decisions were taken by a small cabal around the prime minister are now over, and that the new Cabinet will be more collegiate.

That message is reinforced by Mrs May's decision to bring back into the government Mr Michael Gove, a potential future contender for the party leadership. That concession was clearly not easy for Mrs May, who deeply distrusts Mr Gove. Still, it was a step made inevitable by her desperate need to shore up the government's support base.

But as a meeting between Mrs May and all her backbench MPs yesterday indicated, the party remains restless, with Conservative MPs relishing the rare opportunity of stressing how important they now are in propping up the Prime Minister.

"Trying to make a hung Parliament and a minority government work requires a much more inclusive approach and bringing people into the decision-making process," said Mr Graham Brady, the leader of the Conservative backbenchers, in a clear swipe at Mrs May, who previously paid little heed to their concerns.

Mr Damian Green was appointed First Secretary of State.
Mr Damian Green was appointed First Secretary of State.

Mrs May is also engaged in delicate negotiations with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a small Protestant party from Northern Ireland that usually plays no role in British-wide politics, but whose 10 MPs are now crucial to the survival of the May government.

Critics charge that, by bringing the DUP into government, Mrs May risks taking sides in Northern Ireland, where tensions between Catholics and Protestants continue to smoulder. Neighbouring Ireland's Prime Minister, Mr Enda Kenny, publicly voiced his country's "concerns" at this danger.

But the reality is that the DUP and the ruling Conservatives are both centre-right parties with much in common, and the Northern Irish know they can't demand too much in return for their support, since the only result of a failure to support Mrs May could be the emergence of a government that is less favourable to the Northern Irish.

It is therefore very likely that the DUP will consent to be kept out of a formal coalition, but will pledge to support the government in all essential legislation, in return for economic inducements.

Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn vows to introduce a motion of no confidence in the government early next week, when the Queen opens the newly elected Parliament, thereby forcing a new general election that, based on the latest opinion polls, Labour could win.

But Mr Corbyn's party lacks the ability to carry out this threat; in order to topple the government, he will need not only the support of every opposition MP, but also the votes of some Conservative lawmakers, something that looks highly unlikely. So, Mrs May's government should survive its first baptism of fire in Parliament next week.

But although Mrs May will remain in charge of a government, she is hardly likely to be in power. Most of her electoral promises will have to be ditched, either because they are unpopular or because they are no longer achievable.

And as the formal talks for Britain's withdrawal from the European Union start next week, her government is torn from within about what negotiating tactic to pursue.

The consensus among British political observers is that Mrs May will survive as Prime Minister until early next year, not because she can do much, but because it suits the Conservatives to postpone a new general election until they decide on a new leader.

So, Mrs May continues to soldier on, not because she has anyone's confidence, but because her opponents have yet to agree on who should replace her.

 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2017, with the headline 'May reduced to stopgap leader'. Print Edition | Subscribe