Why is Theresa May leaving office?

Photo by Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916 on Flickr, reproduced under Creative Commons licence BY-ND 2.0.

Back in 2017, I outlined nine ways in which Theresa May could leave office. Now that she is in the process of going, it’s time to revisit that article and see which one ended up being her exit route. To recap, here are the original nine:

1) Illness and/or death
2) Planned resignation and handover
3) Loss of a formal vote of confidence among Conservative MPs
4) Loss of confidence among the Cabinet
5) Loss of the confidence of the House of Commons
6) Defeat in a general election
7) Loss of a referendum
8) Some novel reason
9) Collapse of her government.

Surprisingly, the ‘winner’ is option (8): some novel reason. Describing why Mrs May is leaving office is actually rather difficult: my best attempt would be that she is leaving because her authority within her party collapsed totally. To understand why I’ve chosen to summarise it in that way, let’s look at each of the other possible mechanisms in turn, and how they ended up not applying in Mrs May’s case.

1) Illness and/or death
Happily these didn’t enter the equation.

2) Planned resignation and handover
This meant in the sense of having served a ‘full’ term — clearly she didn’t serve a full term in any meaningful sense, and she has been explicit that rather than departing at a time of her choosing she is leaving earlier than she wished to.

3) Loss of a formal vote of confidence among Conservative MPs
Of course, a formal vote did indeed take place, on December 12th last year. Mrs May survived, but on a margin that amounted to less than half of MPs outside the payroll vote (ministers and other members of the government) actually supporting her. As it was a secret ballot, it’s not certain that’s exactly what happened — it’s possible that some ministers might have voted against her but then unscrupulously remained in her government anyway. Either way, with 63% of MPs in support, she enjoyed only slightly less support than John Major in his ‘back me or sack me’ run-off with John Redwood in 1995, but clearly more than Thatcher’s first ballot score of 54% against Heseltine in 1990. So it was probably fair for her to remain in office, just about. The rule that no further vote could be brought for twelve months sustained her in office into the second half of 2019 — process really was Mrs May’s Valentine, and you won’t find a better example of procedural detail being crucial in politics.

Perhaps more serious was the monstering she had received in the Commons chamber from her own backbenches when she first brought her deal to it, a month earlier on November 15th. That day’s events prompted the first of Mrs May’s weird non-statements from Downing Street, in which she repeatedly displayed her tin ear for what was going on. I honestly thought, from the first few sentences of that statement, that she was about to resign: despite still (at that stage) being able to win votes, she clearly enjoyed such a reduced, qualified level of confidence from Conservative MPs that it would have been reasonable, and arguably correct, for her to see a parallel with Neville Chamberlain’s position after the Norway debate in 1940 and conclude that she should make way for another leader. It’s hard not to feel that the writing was on the wall from that day.

4) Loss of confidence among the Cabinet
There was much talk during May’s last six months (or more) of the Cabinet losing confidence in her or breaking up. But what was typically not spelled out was that ‘losing confidence’ had to mean an unwillingness on the part of ministers to serve. While there were indeed fairly regular resignations, to the extent that Mrs May was on the verge of not having enough MPs left who would be willing to take up vacant junior positions, there was never any prospect of a critical mass of Cabinet-level ministers making it clear to Mrs May that they would most certainly resign if she did not depart.

So while there might have been an attempt at a ‘Cabinet coup’ as Tim Shipman rather breathlessly reported in March, an unwillingness to resign meant that the conspirators were pointing an unloaded gun at the PM. Possibly the strong sense of mythology within the Conservative Party around Thatcher’s downfall led them to believe they couldn’t afford to be seen to be ‘wielding the knife’, lest their own leadership ambitions go the same way as Michael Heseltine’s. Which speaks volumes about the shabby motivations of those involved, but that’s by the by. The episode was a striking contrast to the resignations that seemed to threaten to fell Gordon Brown at the time of his last reshuffle in 2009: numerous ministers actually went ahead and resigned, but the effort did not cohere into a plot to remove him.

Now, was Mrs May ultimately forced out by her Cabinet? Certainly she had lost any command of it some time earlier, and it’s clear that many senior ministers were unhappy both with the policy concessions that she included in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and with her apparent lack of candour when getting it approved at Cabinet. This may indeed have been the immediate trigger for her decision to resign. But I will argue below that simply writing this up as a loss of confidence among the Cabinet does not accurately characterise how Mrs May comes to be leaving office.

5) Loss of the confidence of the House of Commons
Mrs May did lose the confidence of the House of Commons. She was unable to secure the agreement of the House to her central policy, the overriding issue of the day, indeed the core purpose of her government. By any reasonable definition, this means the Commons did not meaningfully have confidence in her, and prior to 2010 any PM in this situation would have resigned.

However, MPs’ widespread misunderstanding of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act led to the accidental creation of a new convention: that the confidence of the House may only be expressed using motions worded in accordance with the terms of the FTPA. (The Act itself, of course, says no such thing.)

Therefore, despite having lost the confidence of the House in any and all senses in which the term would have been used in the past, Mrs May was able to win a vote by which, effectively, the House declare it wished her to remain in office. In other votes, it frustrated her ability to govern, but these policy-specific votes became ‘free hits’, for which she was not obliged to leave office.

This will no doubt be discussed more another time, but it is worth reflecting that MPs overall appear either not to have read the FTPA, or to have developed an erroneous understanding of it because they do not understand the basic concept of separation of powers (thus mistaking a set of rules about how the House of Commons is formed for rules about how governments get formed), or both.

6) Defeat in a general election
7) Loss of a referendum

Neither of these happened.

9) Collapse of her government
Stepping out of sequence briefly: this didn’t happen either. It would have required a fairly specific and complex combination of conditions (both an insurmountable political split and a time-sensitive crisis) which might well have developed, but in the event didn’t. As I wrote last time, British governments do not tend simply to collapse.

8) Some novel reason
Mrs May’s departure from office gives us the challenge of understanding and articulating exactly why it happened.

To the extent that there was a trigger for it, it appeared to be that her Withdrawal Agreement Bill provoked such a strong negative political reaction that it was obvious it would be very heavily defeated if ever introduced to the Commons. If she had not attempted its introduction when she did, and how she did, she might perhaps have staggered on for a while longer.

But expected defeat on a Bill is not, in any constitutional sense, a reason for a Prime Minister to resign. It does not clearly amount to losing the confidence of her Cabinet (though possibly she had), while the confidence of the House of Commons had been forfeited in all but name some time earlier (but this no longer mattered). Clearly there was pressure from both directions for Mrs May to leave quickly.

Perhaps the firmest pressure, however, came from the Extraordinary General Meeting of Conservative Associations planned for June 15th, in which it was fully expected that a motion of no confidence in Mrs May would be passed. This would not carry any formal obligation on her to resign, but even the immovable Mrs May would surely have concluded that such a vote rendered her position as party leader untenable, and that she would have to make way for a successor. As an aside, one might observe that Mrs May’s much-touted ‘sense of duty’ should probably be characterised as a sense of duty to the Conservative Party (which seems to have framed her life, being how she met her husband and what she likes to do with her spare time) rather more than to the country — indeed, it’s not clear that she has much of an understanding of the distinction between the two.

In trying to understand the mechanism for Mrs May’s departure, we also need to note that it was confirmed — in a surprisingly low-key way — by a statement from the 1922 Committee. This was issued before her statement in Downing Street in which she named a date, but did make clear that she had agreed that a timetable for her departure would be announced imminently. This took place in the context of a strong likelihood that the Committee would change the rules to allow another confidence vote of MPs if Mrs May did not agree to go.

The end of Mrs May’s premiership can therefore perhaps be characterised as involving an extra-procedural onslaught from within her own party. Her MPs, Cabinet and local associations were all in semi-declared revolt against her, but none of them actually quite went so far as to exercise the formal mechanisms open to them, such as they were: resigning en masse from Cabinet, changing the rules to allow a further confidence vote of MPs, or voting no confidence in the EGM. The last of those seemed a certainty in time however, and the middle one increasingly likely; one commentator characterised the situation as the 1922 Committee and Cabinet each hoping the other would deal Mrs May the killer blow. The novel reason for a PM to resign is therefore perhaps best understood as a collapse of political authority within their own party, to the point where it forces them out even in the absence of immediate formal mechanisms.

What’s striking about this is that it has little to do with the business of government. While it is true that Mrs May lost the confidence of the Commons for all practical purposes, it was the loss of authority within her own party that deprived her of office. A Prime Minister in an arithmetically tight Parliament in the future might, this suggests, be able to survive in office for a long time if there are enough votes in the Commons keen to avoid a general election or change of government, even if there are not enough votes for that PM to be able to pass any measures. So long as they keep their party sweet enough, they could be sustained in their gilded cage in Downing Street for a good while. The prospect of a Corbyn government in a hung parliament suggests this possibility should be noted, not least because it is even harder in procedural terms for Labour to eject a leader than for the Conservatives.

It might also be said that the manner of Mrs May’s ejection from office, being everything to do with party and nothing to do with the country or the House of Commons, is open to the same objections as some commentators have raised over the current (at the time of writing) Conservative leadership election: that is, a very small number of people are determining who is Prime Minister, and nobody else in the country gets a say. This strikes me as a strange objection: the rule is that Prime Ministers are people who command the confidence of the House of Commons, and in a parliamentary democracy with a party system, that means they will be in that position by the grace of the rules for electing a party leader. To argue against that is to argue against parliamentary democracy itself — an argument that only some of the critics of the current situation have actually realised they are making.

Further reflections
That’s two Tory PMs in a row that have had to leave office for novel reasons. I’m therefore not totally convinced by the argument that the constitution is working more-or-less fine (indeed, it has undergone some innovations, which it only usually does when under stress; and it’s not clear those innovations actually work). The principal dimensions of the current crisis may be political, but there is a strong constitutional dimension to it as well, which could conceivably get considerably worse over the next few months.

Another immediate thought is that Mrs May’s experience makes John Major look more and more impressive. He serves as a model of how to play a bad hand well, rather than an OK hand badly (Cameron, Brown) or a bad hand catastrophically (May).

And finally, one of the most interesting things about Mrs May at this time is that nobody is even attempting to argue that she was any good at all (though plenty offer praise for her ‘sense of duty’, however problematic that might in fact have been). The only disagreement is whether that was essentially a result of happenstance (meaning she might have been a decent PM in other circumstances), or if the blame can justly be laid at her feet, personally (meaning she was not up to the job and would have floundered even in less difficult times). Either way, the only time we saw some emotion from her was when she finally forsook her own job — she will be remembered for crying, briefly, not for the injustices and injuries of Grenfell or Windrush, but for herself.

Working in public policy and writing here about politics, infrequently, in a purely personal capacity.

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