Theresa May’s position as Prime Minister is far more secure than it looks.

theresa may protestor.jpg

In the few days since Theresa May’s difficulties during her keynote speech at last week’s Conservative Party Conference, rumours have abounded as to how much longer she can remain in the role, suggesting that her premiership is teetering on a cliff edge. In fact, it is anything but.

It says a lot, that the only attempt at a rebellion was led by the comically inept Grant Shapps (as many commentators were quick to point out, one wonders how many of the names on Shapps’ “list” were his own alter egos…), and it is highly unlikely that any credible figure will emerge to depose May any time soon.

For the few Cabinet members who could provide a credible alternative to Theresa May, it makes absolutely no sense to try and take over right now.

David Davis? He’s seen first hand how difficult Brexit will be to actually deliver, so there’s absolutely no way he’d want to carry the can for the disaster.

Amber Rudd? Perhaps the Cabinet member best suited to being PM, but difficult to imagine her wanting to take up the job whilst simultaneously trying to defend a wafer thin majority in her own constituency, and given that she was an arch-remainer, she wouldn’t be a popular choice with the party membership.

Philip Hammond? Too boring!

And Boris? Well, given that his primary concern is polishing his own reputation he’d have no interest in the impossible task of trying to deliver his referendum promises — instead preferring to come in “save the day” when the damage has already been done.

And given that no rebellion is ever going to have one of these people as a figurehead, it is unlikely to have any real success.

The main reason for this, is that despite many Conservative MPs (likely including those listed above) feel that Theresa May leading them into the next election would be inadvisable, they are terrified of the civil war they’d precipitate by deposing her. Since the referendum, most of the commentary on party divisions has focused on the Labour Party, and the stark divisions between the Corbynites and the Blairites. In fact, the Conservative Party are as (if not more) divided — up to now at least they’ve just been better at hiding it.

Any leadership election would be bloody and completely tear the party apart. And after all that, the likely outcome would be Jacob Rees-Mogg winning the leadership — a surefire way to never win a General Election. It is laughable that some seem to think Rees-Mogg — an Old-Etonian whose views on social issues would have been considered old fashioned sixty years ago — the answer to the Conservative Party’s problems with young voters. But this is the guy who Tory activists will likely coalesce around, and as such moderates in the Party will have to find their own single candidate to avoid splitting the vote.

This candidate is unlikely to come to the fore until shortly before the next General Election (still scheduled for 2022), with some suggestion from Ruth Davidson that she may be open to the leadership post-2021.

Given this current situation, despite what it may look like, Theresa May’s position is actually pretty safe for now.

Despite this, Boris remains a danger. Although he won’t lead a rebellion, he’s likely to continue to cause trouble. May can’t sack him (although given his conduct as Foreign Secretary, this would be a perfectly proportionate response) as that would risk turning him into a martyr — already popular with the party membership, he’d use the sacking to manoeuvre himself into the leadership, and it’s always better to have your rivals inside the tent. Instead, she should reshuffle him, which May implied in interviews published today that she might be prepared to do. Demote him by moving him to Business, still sufficiently Brexity but with more to do, in the hope that this will prevent him from going off-piste quite so often — wading into other policy areas and causing damage. Do this, and May keeps herself safe.

Despite the current furore, things will quieten down soon. If the Cabinet want to get rid of May because of the election result, then the time to do so was immediately after the election — to back her immediately after the election only to stab her in the back a couple of months later would reflect very badly on the perpetrators in the long-run. Plus, no one wants to become Prime Minister, only to have to take responsibility of Brexit.

Although her position looks wobbly, at the moment it is anything but.

The Lib Dems win in Richmond Park won’t stop Brexit, but it is significant for other reasons.

Zac Goldsmith, who lost his House of Commons seat in last night's by-election in Richmond Park.
Zac Goldsmith, who lost his House of Commons seat in last night’s by-election in Richmond Park.

The result of yesterday’s by-election in Richmond Park is an interesting one in that although it may foreshadow a somewhat remarkable political comeback for the Liberal Democrats, it is extremely unlikely to actually change anything.

When Zach Goldsmith forced this by-election following his resignation from Parliament over the Government’s approval of a third runway at Heathrow Airport, he did so to honour a promise he had made to his prospective constituents prior to being elected in the 2010 and 2015 General Elections. He hoped that he would be comfortably re-elected to served as a quasi-independent champion for those against the expansion of Heathrow. But, with all the major candidates running in this by-election being against Heathrow expansion the Liberal Democrats were able to turn the by-election into a referendum on Goldsmith’s support for Brexit, with candidate Sarah Olney pledging to vote against the triggering of Article 50 and to “resist Brexit in its current form”. In Richmond Park, whose residents voted more than two-to-one in favour of remaining in the European Union, this strategy seems to have worked. The Liberal Democrats were able to overturn Goldsmith’s majority of 23,000 with a swing of 30.4 percent, to ultimately win by almost 2,000 votes which, in a seat which Goldsmith was widely expected to retain, is quite some margin. The Lib Dems pro-EU stance clearly helped them win, but as Editor of The Spectator (and Richmond Park constitutent) Fraser Nelson recognises, it was also “it was a victory for good, old-fashioned campaigning. And the fact that it was, in effect, a two horse race. A referendum on Zac, and his decision to call a by-election.” The two-horse race point is particularly significant with the results suggesting that many who would ordinarily back Labour, switched to the Lib Dems to block Goldsmith. Labour candidate Christian Wolmar received 1,515 votes, which is less than the number of Labour members who live in Richmond Park, whilst there was also reports that many Labour activists were campaigning on behalf of the Lib Dems in the days before the vote. What this comes back to though is Goldsmith’s Brexit stance which, in a constituency as pro-Remain as Richmond Park, was never going to go down well.

But, although the Lib Dems victory was impressive, and there pro-EU message clearly had a significant effect, it is not really going to change the direction of travel. In short, despite what the Lib Dems have promised in campaigning for this by-election, Brexit will still go ahead. The Lib Dems now have nine MPs who will vote against Article 50. The SNP have indicated that all their 55 MPs will vote against Article 50, whilst five Labour MPs (David Lammy, Catherine West, Daniel Zeichner, Geraint Davies, and Owen Smith) have said that they will vote against the triggering of Article 50, as has Conservative MP Ken Clarke. This would make seventy MPs voting against Article 50, not nearly enough to ‘overturn’ the referendum by voting down Article 50. So to suggest that last night’s Lib Dem victory in Richmond Park will change the course of Brexit is pretty absurd.

Where it might have an effect however, is in highlighting the views of those 48 percent of voters who didn’t back Brexit, which may in turn lead to the Government pursuing more of a ‘soft Brexit’, i.e. leaving the European Union but looking to remain a part of the Single Market. This is something that many in the Government would likely support, and David Davis and Boris Johnson have both indicated that they may support something like this. Davis indicated yesterday that the Government would strongly consider a deal which involved paying into the EU budget in return for Single Market membership, whilst Boris Johnson is reported to have sad that he’s in favour of the continuing free movement of people between the EU and the UK.

However, overall this by-election is set to have a relatively small (if any) impact upon the direction of policy. Where it may have an impact is in the re-alignment of the political parties on the back of a Liberal Democrat resurgence. As Leader, Tim Farron has looked to establish the Lib Dems as a so-called ‘party of the 48 percent’, and the results in the by-elections in Richmond Park, and last month in Witney, suggest that he is being successful in doing so. Farron described last night’s result as, “ a remarkable, come-from-nowhere upset that will terrify the Conservatives.” It seems a bit strong to suggest that it will terrify the Conservatives, but it could certainly give the Conservatives some difficulty at the next General Election. Remember that it was typically Conservative surges in Liberal Democrat seats which secured them their majority at the 2015 General Election, and many of these seats like Bath, Cheltenham, Kingston and Surbiton, and Twickenham voted Remain in the EU Referendum. It would be unsurprising to see swings towards the Lib Dems in these constituencies similar to what we’ve seen in Witney and Richmond Park. In addition there are the likes of Wokingham and Chipping Barnet which both voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU but are occupied by Conservative MPs who backed Brexit, John Redwood and Theresa Villiers respectively. It would be unsurprising for the Lib Dems to also challenge in these seats.

But, arguably it is not the Conservatives who are giving the Lib Dems a way back. Given that the Conservatives have a huge lead in the polls (with a recent poll putting them on 44 percent — a lead of sixteen over Labour) losing a few seats to the Lib Dems isn’t really going be a blow to their chances of forming a majority government at the next general election. It is Labour who should really be fearing the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats. Labour’s terrible showing in Richmond Park highlighted their weaknesses, and this could allow the Liberal Democrats to squeeze them nationwide. Labour are going to forced to take a decision on whether or not they back Brexit very soon. Given the number of Labour constituencies which backed Brexit, the Labour Party are going to be forced to back Brexit or face seeing a UKIP surge under Paul Nuttall do the same to them in Northern England and Wales, as the SNP did to them in Scotland. But, this stance could have a negative effect in the urban areas which voted Labour in 2015 but also voted to remain the EU. It remains to be seen, but it does not look as if these voters have particularly warmed to Jeremy Corbyn, and so their vote is arguably up for grabs. What the Richmond Park result (and Labour’s terrible showing) highlights is the Labour Party’s complete lack of a voice on Europe.

The vote in Richmond Park was effectively a futile protest vote against the UK leaving the EU, and as a result it won’t exactly have the Conservatives running for cover. However, the same cannot be said of Labour. What the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats proves is that they have opponents everywhere. In Scotland, the SNP took almost all of their seats in 2015, and Labour show no signs of winning them back, having fallen to third in the polls behind the Scottish Conservatives who have surged on the back of Ruth Davidson’s strong leadership. In England, the Conservatives dominate Labour in all of the swing seats which are essential to forming a majority government — in the South and West of England, Labour are polling lower than ever. In the North of England, this week’s election of Paul Nuttall as the new leader of UKIP could put the squeeze on Labour at the next general election in areas which voted heavily for Brexit. Whilst the Lib Dems resurgence proves that Labour can’t be complacent in urban areas either.

Whilst the Liberal Democrats will be celebrating their win in Richmond Park and what they may see as a nationwide resurgence, Labour will be worried, as they are now truly teetering on a cliff edge.