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Theresa May: Safe until 2020? (Annika Haas CC BY-2.0)

Theresa May’s political demise, after her calamitous decision to call an unnecessary election last year, is taking much longer than most of her Conservative colleagues expected. As the results were coming in on the night of June 8 and it was becoming clear that the Tories were heading for anything but the landslide many of them were still expecting, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg stated that her Conservative contacts were telling her May had only  a 50-50 chance of still being Prime Minister the following afternoon.

Those close to Brexit Secretary David Davis — at that stage the clear frontrunner to take over as leader, being a firm Brexiteer acceptable to Eurosceptic MPs and the wider Conservative membership — were firmly expecting their man to have replaced May in time for the Conservative Party conference in October. May remained in place, but her dreadful conference performance convinced more MPs that it was imperative for her to go and go soon — although perhaps only after the government had secured agreement with the European Union formally to embark on divorce talks. This was achieved last December but the shine from that achievement was quickly obliterated by the forced resignation of Damian Green, the First Secretary of State and de facto Deputy Prime Minister. May’s handling of this crisis might have been enough to trigger a no-confidence ballot; but whether it was the proximity to Christmas or the lack of a clear alternative leader, that threat faded too.

Now, as an interim deal with the EU on the terms of Britain’s transition arrangements for leaving is within grasp and its broad outlines look likely to be acceptable to both wings of the party, Tory MPs, with only a few exceptions, feel that this, at least, needs to be secured before their party embarks on a leadership battle. Many are beginning to think: might it not be better to let May’s premiership run on for longer, and  install a new leader 18 months or so before the next general election?

It is virtually impossible to find any Conservative MPs, or indeed MPs of any party, who believe that May will lead the party into that election. Last June was too awful for them to countenance a re-run. An election, however, is not imminent. Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act — which will remain firmly on the statute books despite the fact the Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto pledged to repeal it as there is clearly no majority to get this through the Commons — the next election is scheduled for May 5, 2022. Last year’s events showed that a government can get around the Act and call an early election, but they also ensured that there is zero appetite for doing so on the Conservative benches. Unless the Brexit negotiations go disastrously wrong, there is little prospect of an election before 2022.
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