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The cycle in Team May in Number 10 goes like this.
Disaster strikes, things fall off the wall, authority is shot, a leadership crisis looms – at which point the small band of loyalists around the Prime Minister acknowledge that she’s clinging on for a bit more and she’s resilient in the “national interest” (hokum, worst phrase in democratic politics) but nothing is for very long.
Then comes a mini-recovery, a break on Brexit, or a decent speech, and suddenly the talk among Mayites is that – by jingo! – May is back, she has found her voice, she’s back for good.
In spirit, post-Birmingham Mayite tails are up, which is why The Times reports cabinet ministers quashing the idea that May might press on and fight another election in 2022, a thought that should cause nightmares for anyone with a house, a mortgage, a job, a brain, or any combination of those four assets. Imagine Theresa May in 2022 on the campaign trail pledging to serve a full term opening up the prospect of May in Number 10 until 2027. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh.
The swing to over optimism – May is going nowhere, is the line, she might even fight the next election – is detectable again in the wake of May’s successful conference speech. The pleasure is genuine on the part of her friends and advisers. The bunker is a difficult enough place to be ordinarily, during the Brexit farce it sounds even tougher than usual.
The truth is, if Brexit can be botched together and the Tory party and the country gets through it in one piece then May has to go quickly after that, with a contest next summer and a farewell possibly at party conference next year (although I think they should move quicker post-departure.)
The Tories need a fresh leader and new ideas if they are to beat Labour. May has to go next year. Everyone knows it. The cabinet knows. Tory MPs know. Tory activists know. The media knows.
So, how best to deal with this embarrassing situation? There is a way through and it could be immensely popular with the country.
Theresa May should announce, now, that she will not be standing for parliament at the next election.
Look, she can say, I’ve done my stint and I won’t be standing to be an MP again. I’ll be leaving the Commons. I am here, she can say, to find a safe and acceptable path through Brexit and then I will stand aside. The Conservative party needs to find someone with new energy and ideas. Much more importantly, the country needs new leadership. I am staying, she can say, as leader only to get this deal done and steer the ship safely into harbour. Simultaneously, she can add, I’ll bring in some new talent and encourage the Conservative party to begin a debate about the ideas and personnel it needs to save the country from John McDonnell and the Marxist Maniacs (great name for a band.)
Her situation if she announced this would be transformed. May would be seen to embody duty and sacrifice, with all the risk that she might try to put herself up to be Prime Minister again removed. What a sensible lady, most people would say. Putting personal ambition aside. Anyone seeking to remove May mid-Brexit would be deemed a loony or a cad.
So, Team May. It’s over, by next year. Get the maximum leverage out of embracing reality. That is what she should do, next week.