James Kirkup

Theresa May is safe, at least for now

Theresa May is safe, at least for now
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This comes perilously close to making a prediction about politics, so I’ll probably regret it. Never mind. Here goes. There’s some talk at Westminster about a leadership challenge to Theresa May. Harry Cole of the Sun, who knows his stuff, reports that Graham Brady of the 1922 Committee, could be close to the critical total of 48 letters from MPs. Joe Murphy of the Evening Standard, a Lobby reporter with few, if any, peers, says he’s heard of two more letters going in this weekend. Joe also reports a Tory plotter saying that May’s local elections are the 'maximum danger point' for Mrs May.

And on that basis, I make the following observation: Mrs May is safe, for now. This is not, to be clear, to question those reports I summarise above: I believe them. In particular, I believe that rebels are naming the May elections as the key date.

And that’s why I think the Prime Minister is safe. I first started reporting on MPs talking about leadership plots in the very early 2000s – talking about plots against Tony Blair and Iain Duncan Smith, then against Gordon Brown and, sometimes, against David Cameron.

The common element to those stories was the prediction from MPs that the threatened assassination would take place at a point in the future, possible if certain conditions were met. If you read political news, you’ll be familiar with the template:

[Leader’s name] will face a leadership challenge at/after [Xmas/Easter/Summer/Local elections] unless they [Improve/change policy/reshuffle], MPs said last night.

One senior MP told the [Publication Name] that [leader] had until [date] to change course – or be forced out by angry backbenchers.

And the vast majority of those threats came to nothing. Indeed, the successful plots, like the removal of Iain Duncan Smith and Tony Blair, were not telegraphed in this way. Yes, we all reported, accurately enough, that MPs were uneasy with them, but their end did not come after clearly dated warnings. By the time we started reporting on the plots that really were fatal, the die was cast and the knives drawn. 

When your colleagues come for you, you don’t get a warning in the papers first. The first you know about it is that there’s a knife between your ribs. That experience leads me to this conclusion: when unhappy MPs tell journalists that their leader will face a coup at a named point in the future, that leader is not, in fact, in danger. The mere fact of saying such a thing to a journalist is a sign that there is not actually a grave threat. When there is a real mortal threat, you don’t brief about it in advance.

One reason MPs have for briefing journalists about future threats is to create the idea that the plot is bigger and more real than it actually is – to persuade others to join in, that there is something to join in. Or maybe in the hope that others will actually do the deed and make the real move against the leader that the briefer is not willing or able to make. 

In an odd way, then, whispered briefings about future conditional plots reflect not the weakness of a leader’s position but its relative strength: sometimes MPs brief hacks about supposed threats precisely because the leader is not in immediate mortal danger.   

To be crystal clear, I am not questioning either the accuracy or validity of those reports by Harry Cole and Joe Murphy, or any of the other pieces that have been written and will be written on this theme. (Apart from anything else, I’ve written enough of these stories myself). The reporters are doing their job and telling their readers as much as they can about what politicians are saying.

My aim here is to help others interpret and judge the words and actions that are being reported. And for as long as MPs are talking about getting rid of Theresa May in the future, not just doing the deed here and now, her position will continue to be relatively secure. Having grown accustomed to living with – and living through – talk of her demise, our weak but stable PM will sleep as easily tonight as she ever does.

Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is the Director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph

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