THERESA May managed to hang onto her job in the face of last week’s challenge from her own backbenchers. But the battle to become the next Tory leader is now under way after she promised them she would not lead the party into the next election.
The threshold of 48 letters needed to trigger a vote of confidence was finally reached after months of bluster from the Brexiteers about the strength of opposition to Mrs May. The final straw seemed to be her decision to postpone the “meaningful vote” in parliament on her deal with the EU – a vote she still looks likely to lose when it takes place after Christmas.
The Brexiteers failed in their ambition of toppling the prime minister on Wednesday, although she now knows she has 117 Tory MPs who want rid of her compared with 200 who believe she should stay.
But her concession that she will hand over to someone new before the next election is significant. It could be argued it is simply stating the obvious. After last year’s disastrous general election when the Tories started out with a 21-point lead and ended up losing their majority, it quickly became the unspoken assumption that Mrs May would not be allowed to fight another.
But then she began talking as if she did intend to carry on, saying she was “no quitter” and “in this for the long term”. Hence the need for her announcement last week that although she would “love to” fight the next election she accepted the party wanted a new leader to take on that challenge.
That may have given comfort to some Tory MPs in two minds about whether or not to back her in the vote of confidence, but it also immediately weakened the prime minister.
Like Tony Blair, who promised to step down under pressure from Gordon Brown, and David Cameron, who declared his intention to go while chopping vegetables in an “at home” TV documentary, she will now face one question repeated over and over again: When?
The fact she has signalled her own departure also gives permission to rivals to position themselves for a contest it is now acknowledged is on the horizon. Some of them, notably Boris Johnson, never felt the need to wait for such permission, but others will have held back.
The field is potentially huge. MPs vote first, choosing two candidates who then go forward to a postal ballot of Conservative party members across the country.
Many believe Boris Johnson’s chances are low because, despite his apparent popularity at the grassroots, he is not well-liked among MPs.
There will be an argument that the next leader must be someone who campaigned for Leave. Jacob Rees-Mogg is another grassroots favourite but many still find him difficult to take seriously.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has already said he’d like the job and although he voted Remain he was talking favourably at the weekend about a no deal. Home Secretary Sajid Javid topped a poll of Tory councillors on who should succeed Mrs May.
Former Brexit Secretaries Dominic Raab and David Davis could also fancy their chances, as might May ally Amber Rudd, Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey and more.
Mrs May will now find that for her leadership, as well as the Brexit negotiations, the clock is ticking.