Ian Swanson: Tory plotting is political gunpowder for weak May

The Prime Minister is under pressure from her own side.
The Prime Minister is under pressure from her own side.
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TORY plotters claim that 40 MPs are ready to sign a letter calling for a vote of confidence in Theresa May. That’s just eight short of the number required to trigger a ­ballot which could see the Prime Minister toppled.

Mrs May has been living on borrowed time since her catastrophic misjudgement in calling a general election in May and seeing the Tories’ ­narrow Commons majority disappear.

She has survived so far because there is no obvious successor and because a change of leadership would spark demands for a general election, which the Tories fear Labour could win.

But the government is now in chaos – Sir Michael Fallon quitting as Defence Secretary over sexual harassment claims; Mrs May’s deputy Damian Green under investigation for similar behaviour – which he denies; International Development Secretary Priti Patel forced to resign after freelancing on foreign policy; and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson mired in controversy after his unhelpful remarks about British mother Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, imprisoned in Iran.

Events had already been spiralling downwards for Mrs May even before the Cabinet started falling apart. Her dreadful election campaign was ­followed by her poor response to the tragic Grenfell Tower fire and then her disastrous conference speech.

All this is at a time when the ­country is trying to negotiate one of the most momentous changes in its history, bringing to an end our more than 40 year membership of the European Union.

Other EU leaders do not know how long Mrs May will be around to ­negotiate with and are said to be ­preparing for the collapse of the UK government by the end of the year.

Has it now got to the point where the party has had enough and is ready to oust the Prime Minister?

The problem for the Tories is there is still no obvious successor. One poll which asked who should replace Mrs May found 37 per cent “don’t knows” and 27 per cent “none of those named” – both scoring more than Boris Johnson on 10 per cent, Jacob Rees-Mogg on eight per cent, with Brexit Secretary David Davis and Home Secretary Amber Rudd both on four per cent.

Worryingly for Labour, despite the Tory turmoil, Mrs May remains ahead of Jeremy Corbyn as the voters’ choice for Prime Minister – by 34 per cent to 31. But voting intentions still ­suggest a general election would produce a ­narrow victory for Labour by 43 per cent to 40.

Mrs May wanted a “strong and stable” government, but she now ­presides over the precise opposite.

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are seeking to exploit her weakness, as evidenced in the secret letter they sent her, complaining some parts of the government lacked “sufficient energy” over Brexit – seen as a swipe at Chancellor Philip Hammond – and urging her to ensure ministers got behind her on the issue by “clarifying their minds”.

Mrs May might well survive for some time yet, the government’s precarious position serving as her strength.

But there is no disguising the ­shambles which the government has now become and no sign of any ­serious improvement on the horizon.

On past form, it looks like things are likely to get worse before they get better.