Theresa May’s confident ascent to Britain’s highest political office has sometimes seemed unstoppable these last few days. Indeed, as Andrea Leadsom quit the race – after a disastrous and rancorous weekend – she and her supporters were able to cast her campaign as some sort of insurgent rebellion: Doomed to failure, sure, but honourable in its courage at battling the machine. It is worth reminding ourselves, then, that just a fortnight ago #TM4PM was less than certain – indeed, even to some of her closest supporters, it felt unlikely.
The European referendum delivered a genuine punch in the gut to Britain’s political classes. Not many people – including many who campaigned for it – thought Brexit would succeed. The terror in Gove and Johnson’s eyes the next morning showed just how unexpected their victory was. How telling that Sarah Vine – Gove’s wife and star columnist at the Mail – admitted saying to her husband on the morning of the result; “you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.” It isn’t simply that he didn’t believe he could win, it’s that he wasn’t really trying to. The logic of what would happen next – had the result, as expected, split the other way – was simple. Boris, Gove and their ragtag band of merry warriors would capitalise (SNP style) on defeat. Untroubled by the uncertainties of actually leaving the EU, they would be free to make mischief and stir ill-will. And they would have plenty of time, Cameron would cling on like knotweed as they cut him back piece by piece and let him live just long enough to assure their eventual triumph. It didn’t matter that they had no plan except fratricide – that was all the plan they needed.
Just like everyone else, the Brexiteers underestimated the British public’s enthusiasm for change. And they have been found out these last few weeks. Gove knifed Boris who backed Andrea who beat Liam – like privateers who have stumbled across buried treasure, only to kill one another off in mutual suspicion and envy, they threw their riches away.
All of which has left Theresa May, she who refused to climb aboard the good ship Brexit, unassailable captain of all she surveys. Leadsom dropping out makes her PM quicker (and cheaper) than imagined. It is now certain that May will wake up on Thursday as Britain’s second female Prime Minister, but by this point it really, actually had become a foregone conclusion. Andrea Leadsom wasn’t ready to be captain. She’s barely graduated from cabin boy.
There will be Leave voters who feel betrayed by this turn of events. But they will find succour in UKIP (which, as it happens, many of Leadsom’s supporters were already members of anyway). In the meantime, May was always going to be faced with a profound and difficult decision if she won. An election now would secure her as PM, give her a mandate and (quite probably) increase her majority. And yet, not a gambler by nature, she will feel reluctant to so quickly roll the dice on power so recently won. The fact that Leadsom left her to take charge unopposed now makes it even more likely we will be voting in a General Election this year
Cameron’s sudden announcement that he will surrender the reins post-PMQs on Wednesday gives Mrs May even less time to work out what on earth ‘Brexit’ actually means. 84 elected Tory MPs decided Andrea Leadsom was preferable to Theresa May on the basis of Europe alone. Don’t expect them to give her an easy ride now, simply because she is Leader. The Conservative Party’s European nightmare is far from over.