This week marked the closest Theresa May has been to being removed as prime minister since her disastrous general election result in June. A now infamously bad speech, cabinet infighting and a general perception of her being weak have made her departure, in the eyes of many, inevitable, even if for the time being not immediately forthcoming.
Depending on who you ask (or, depending on the interviewee’s political leaning) the problem facing Mrs. May and the Conservative party in general is either Brexit, or a lack of clear, coherent and compassionate domestic policy. The discrepancy in reasoning is caused merely by respective actors emphasising their strengths – the issue is the same regardless: there is a lack of direction in Theresa May’s government.
This, in the opinion of many, will be fatal, if for no other reason than cool-headed reliability to do a task they have been asked to do is proudly promoted by many Conservatives as the modus operandi of the Tory party. A lack of direction, and by extension an inability to effectively deal with the tasks at hand, all serve to damage the party doubly as they damage the Conservatives the government and the brand.
This is why Theresa May is most certainly a dead woman walking. The very fact she is still walking is because the crisis facing the Tory party is systemic, rather than a sickness held in the head. The most likely candidate to replace her is Boris Johnson, eluding again to the behemoth of Brexit that is crushing this government and, it must be said, most of Westminster. An election of Boris as leader of would almost certainly smother some of the Brexit fires, but would leave other flames to burn out of control. It would also reinforce the perception that the Tories are out of touch; according to YouGov, he has never been more unpopular.1
In what is now becoming a list of problems, the Conservatives find themselves with another: Mrs. May can’t lead but must, whilst Mr. Johnson can lead be must not. If we were to muse as to how to solve this problem, one might take it as a joke when I refer to a snake, but it is not. A leviathan in the context of history is one that unites various warring tribes through its singular might. Politicians might be snakes, but are any leviathans?
The apparent consensus is no, but that’s hardly creative thinking. Brexit has caused all of this mess, and perhaps it can fix it. Mrs. May faces an increasingly difficult task in leaving the European Union, whilst Brexiteers breathe down her throat, and the masses of young Remainers at home flock to Jeremy Corbyn. As a political move, calling a second referendum on Brexit may solve all three of these problems.
Assuming that, given the chance to vote again, a coalition of mobilised youth, terrified metropolitan elite and regretful middle-Englanders might reverse the result, Mrs. May may save her premiership. Talk of Brexit would be over, allowing her to focus on a strong domestic agenda and give her party an important sense of direction. Equally, it would cripple the hard Brexit wing of the party – including Mr. Johnson – through a shift to the centre ground. The result would be alienation for Boris and co.
Finally, Mr. Corbyn (whom I have spoken little about) would have his wind knocked out of his sails as his legions of supporters would, in a manner of speaking, side with the enemy. To put it another way, Mrs. May would be offering the young something only a prime minister could offer, and the young would be hard pressed to refuse.
As a solution, of course, it is not perfect. There would be accusations of old wounds opening (though, I would retort, that said wounds never closed) and it is certainly short-termist – the problem of Europe would continue to plague the Conservatives for years to come. But as I have written previously, this will be the case regardless.2
Though these are not the major flaw with this plan. The major flaw is the assumption that the result would be reversed. Just as Mr. Cameron did before her, losing the referendum would result in Mrs. May’s resignation. But so too will a ‘no deal,’ outcome, or simply a strategy of waiting it out. Mrs. May is on a collision course with failure, and only a risk might rectify that. If ever there was a time for bold and brave (if not necessarily strong and stable) leadership, let it be now. Call a second referendum.