General election 2017: Time for May to meet her party critics ‘head on’
A meeting of the Conservative Party’s influential backbench 1922 committee – in effect all Conservative backbenchers – has been brought forward by 24 hours to 17:00 BST on Monday.
This is not because of panic, but possibly as a way of suppressing it. As one MP put it: “The wise heads will need to tell any hotheads to calm down.”
The prime minister will meet her internal critics head on. Having phoned over the weekend candidates who were defeated in an election she didn’t need to call, she will find that many of those who escaped that fate are cross.
But widespread demands for her to go are not expected.
Instead, there will be demands for her to consult more, including meeting regularly with the 1922 executive, and to turn Downing Street from a bunker into an open house by broadening her range of staff.
However, few MPs expect her position to be strong and stable for the next five years.
One senior backbencher told me: “It is inconceivable she will lead the party into the next election. Her authority has been diminished unquestionably.”
Another said: “Party members have been too bruised by her.”
‘Bought herself time’
“She has bought herself some time”, said a senior backbencher, but added: “How she behaves will determine how long she’s there.”
There is a feeling that the party is holding on to nurse for fear of something worse.
“There is zero appetite for another election,” as one MP put it, and a feeling that, in an early poll, victory wouldn’t be guaranteed.
Some say Labour’s digital campaign and mobilisation of young people was particularly impressive, and another election would give Jeremy Corbyn the opportunity to do what he does best – campaign.
Some kind of arrangement with the DUP is seen as inevitable, but one MP cautioned “the devil is in the detail”.
One of the reasons the 1922 meeting has been moved forward is so any deal can be discussed before it is sealed.
Nonetheless, it is anticipated that the most flexible of arrangements is likely to be put in place; one that would mean there would have to be negotiations with the DUP on an issue-by-issue basis.
Theresa May is expected to hear strong criticisms of what one backbencher dubbed “her miserable manifesto”.
Of course, some individual policies, such as social care – “It went down like a lead balloon” – will be singled out, but the presentation of policy will also be attacked.
MPs will say that an effective fourfold lifting of the floor on residential care costs wasn’t widely understood.
And a campaign which barely mentioned the economy will come under fire.
“We didn’t dodge a bullet but were winged,” said one. “If Labour had a more credible leader we could have been in even bigger difficulties.”
Brexit means Brexit?
There has been speculation that there may now be a “softer Brexit”, partly because of an influx of Scottish MPs who favour close trading relationships with the EU, but also because of the elevation of Damian Green to First Secretary of State.
He is a friend of Mrs May’s, a Remainer in the referendum campaign, and he has warned that concessions may have to be made in negotiations.
But some senior Tories have told me that they will urge her to stick to her manifesto commitments on Brexit and, for them, controls on immigration and coming out of the single market are “bottom lines”.
Others will want to insist on the freedom to strike trade deals, so coming out of the customs union is seen as essential.
“We must hold our nerve on Brexit,” said one.
However, another senior backbencher recognised that it would now be inevitable that Parliament would have greater influence over the process.
“She will be walking a tightrope”, and, while MPs seem to see the necessity, in the words of one former minister, to “shore her up in the short term”, if she stumbles, she can fall at any time.