When a new MP is offered a job as a parliamentary private secretary for a cabinet member, it’s often a test to see if they really would do anything to get into government. It involves running errands, spying on colleagues, ferrying messages around the Commons and planting inane questions for backbenchers to ask in the chamber. But in this hung Parliament, another duty has been added to those of the Tory PPS: to report anyone who might look as if they’re running for leadership.
The Tory whips’ office has asked every PPS to inform them if any minister is behaving suspiciously — giving grand speeches about the state of the nation, perhaps, inviting colleagues for drinks or just making a few too many friends. Everyone knows that Theresa May is unlikely to fight another general election, so a leadership campaign is inevitable. But everyone seems to agree that this could fairly quickly turn into a bloodbath, so it’s best that no one moves now. It’s an uneasy truce, which the whips are anxiously trying to police.
The new consensus is that May will lead the party to the end of the Brexit negotiations, because a leadership challenge could backfire so badly. As one MP puts it: ‘We’ve gone from “what the hell are we going to do?” to “we have a plan” — 18 months more of May so that we have time to form a real plan.’ Planning to plan might sound more like a Blackadder sketch than a strategy for good government, but few Conservatives think they have other options.
In the last few months, May’s would-be rivals in the cabinet have demeaned themselves with petty squabbles. ‘The more cabinet briefings, the less appetising the alternatives to May have become,’ explains a senior member of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. Anyone who thinks they are up to the job must make their case discreetly or they’ll be condemned as overly ambitious, and reported to the whips.