Theresa May's Feet of Clay

4 November 2016

The magic number is 12.

That was the size of the Government’s majority in the House of Commons following the last General Election. A slender but significant figure, that result propelled the Conservatives back into single party Government and set in motion the chain of events that led to the Brexit vote.

Since then, a brief leadership competition and a change of Prime Minister has not compelled the party seek a fresh mandate from the people. Since she entered Downing Street in July, Theresa May had succeeded in arguing that the combined result of the General Election and the EU Referendum granted her sufficient legitimacy to guide the country out of the EU, along with all the difficult decisions that would entail.

In the turbulent aftermath of 23 June, the Prime Minister could argue that an early election would sacrifice the stability she felt the country badly needed. Fast forward four months and her position is far more precarious.

In a last week and a half, two Conservative MPs have resigned their seats in protest at her ministry’s core positions.

Zac Goldsmith honoured a long-held commitment to his Richmond Park constituents in forcing a contest after the backing of a new North West runway at Heathrow Airport. Ms May and Transport Secretary Chris Grayling delivered the long-awaited verdict with the intention of sending the signal that Britain was open for business. In light of their choice, political mitigation for Mr Goldsmith and other West London Conservatives was no longer an option.

However, the hope of the Liberal Democrats that they could reclaim the seat they lost in 2010 is pinned on Mr Goldsmith’s Leave credentials against the strong Remain vote of his seat. They have a mountain to climb in eroding Mr Goldsmith’s local support, but 2016 has seen bigger political upsets, and their hopes have been fanned on by the remarkable collapse in the Conservative vote in David Cameron's former constituency, Witney. Even if Mr Goldsmith is returned to the Commons, it is unlikely that he would fall back in line with the Tory Whip.

The resignation of Conservative MP Stephen Phillips underlines a different type of challenge to the Prime Minister. There is little risk of another party claiming his Sleaford and North Hykeham seat, where the majority was 24,115 in 2015. Instead, it underlines the fractious nature of the Conservative Party at present, riven in some cases by, as Mr Phillips put it, “irreconcilable policy differences”.

He represents the cohort of Brexiteer Conservative MPs who backed Ms May in July in the hope she would deliver Brexit in an orderly way. In resigning, reportedly over the Government’s stance on Parliamentary approval of Article 50, Mr Phillips demonstrates that dissatisfaction with the “Brexit means Brexit” sticking plaster exists among both Remain and Leave supporters. Both sides want a more open and transparent approach to the UK’s negotiations on leaving the EU.

Ms May shows no signs of bowing to this pressure, reassuring European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that Article 50 will be moved by March 2017, and choosing to appeal this week’s High Court verdict. Nevertheless, the slim Commons majority makes the Prime Minister sensitive to quivers and quakes from both wings of her party. The fact the loudest rumblings are coming from Brexiters, including Mr Goldsmith and Mr Phillips, should send a warning sign.

If Downing Street does not bow to pressure on either further Brexit details or the Article 50 ruling, the third option remains to go to the country early - an option eagerly trailed by the papers once more today. The provisions of the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011 do not make this impossible, just difficult. Faced with critics both inside and outside the Conservative Party, an early General Election might be the easiest path to Brexit for Theresa May.

She is not ready to take it yet, but the other roads will be harder to walk on feet of clay.

Mike Indian, Political Consultant
Mike Indian
Political Consultant

Mike Indian is Political Consultant and a member of DeHavilland’s Content team, leading on infrastructure and Scottish affairs. He leads on DeHavilland's dynamic content, specifically videos and podcasts, and regularly appears in the media as a political commentator. A graduate of Lancaster University, he has worked as a freelance journalist.