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Why Theresa May will stay

Whenever I get in a conversation about Theresa May's leadership - which is sadly often - I find myself confidently insisting that she's not going anywhere, rumours to the contrary. There's been so much noise in the last few weeks - today we have another story about Tory donors giving May a stern warning - that I'm not as sure now, but here is the properly articulated argument for thinking she'll remain prime minister, probably for a couple of years.

To start with I have to say that I don't have any sources in the Conservative Party (or indeed the Labour Party) to bolster this. I've heard from two people who'd heard from other people (who might or might not actually know anything) that there'll be some sort of move in the next few weeks, and I don't have any inside word contradicting that. But this is far from my first rodeo as far as dramatic leadership challenges go, and it's just hard to see how anyone could genuinely think that trying to oust Theresa May now, or any time soon, could be anything but a disaster.

Lots of damning newspaper columns and anonymous criticisms of May seem to suggest otherwise. A good guiding star for this kind of situation, though, is that there are a lot more times that it makes sense to talk about a leadership challenge than there are times it makes sense to launch one. Talking about a challenge can spook the leadership into making concessions, or boost your profile for a much-later leadership election. It can feed into a narrative that the current leader can't unite the party, and so be part of a longer-view strategy to make your faction more influential. (That's basically why, in Australia, Malcolm Turnbull keeps getting needled by Tony Abbott even though there's no chance the party would elect Abbott again.) And because lots of political journalists will happily quote anonymous sources, and most columnists are never held to account for making wrong predictions on the basis of party chatter, you can keep playing the game as long as you like.

If you launch a challenge, though, something actually has to happen. And the Conservative election rules are particularly well designed to make that something painful and not worth the trouble. The first hurdle is that Theresa May would have to lose a confidence vote of the full party. There's not really any reason to think May wouldn't contest that vote, given her track record fighting increasingly grim battles in the last eight months. So it's a big jump from 48 dissidents to 159, especially when many would be reluctant to bring down May for fear of what might come after, out of a deeply uncertain full leadership election.

Because there is almost no prospect of a 'clean' coup, for the simple reason that a large chunk of the Tories' disunity and discontent is not really Theresa May's fault. The unifying way of describing MPs' complaints is that they're about her "failure to take key decisions over a Brexit deal", but the common ground is completely superficial. Jacob Rees-Mogg, as he's made perfectly clear, wouldn't be appeased by the PM announcing that the UK will stay in the customs union, no matter how decisively she did so. The frustration is with May talking out of both sides of her mouth - most notably over the Irish border - but the reason she's doing that is that picking a side and sticking to it would cause half the party to explode.

None of that, god knows, is to say that Theresa May has no personal flaws contributing to this situation. It just means that there couldn't possibly be a consensus candidate. Maybe Michael Gove, a dedicated Brexiteer but someone who's displayed a lot of political competence at Defra recently, could have pulled it off once. But it's rapidly approaching crunch-time for these negotiations, and neither Tory faction is going to quietly give up on its Brexit demands just in exchange for a less chaotic leader's office. So when Matthew Parris writes, "Whether from a Remainer or a Leaver, the keynote is that this cannot go on" - well, there's the rub.

A contested leadership election would be a nightmare for the party. The Tories' two political plays in the last year have been to whine ineffectually about socialism and to harangue the other parties about betraying Brexit whenever they raise a question about how it should be done. Having a weeks-long contest centred on how Brexit should be done would be ruinous from that standpoint, even before you consider how brutally tooth-and-claw that contest would be.

Most simplistically, the best estimation of the party arithmetic is that hard-Brexit supporters have a majority in the Conservative membership (who decide in a leadership election) but soft-Brexit advocates make up most of the parliamentary party (which decides the confidence vote). So you'd expect the less Eurosceptic MPs to avoid sinking May because they'd likely lose among the full membership. More broadly, though, the contest would be dirty and uncertain, and right from the beginning whoever emerged the winner would be barely less dogged by party disunity than May is now.

So: a no-confidence vote probably wouldn't pass, and if it did a hugely damaging leadership election would deliver not much advance on the status quo. To the extent they recognise all that, Tory dissenters are going to pull back from the brink. And nothing in this dynamic is going to change after the local elections in three months, or indeed at any time while there are still substantive questions about Brexit to be decided. All that adds up to Theresa May, friendless though she may be, surviving at least until a new general election is in sight.

Of course I should repeat the disclaimer that I don't have any inside knowledge to base this on. The argument turns on Tories not have a collective death-wish for their party, but you only have to look back to 2016 for an example of British politicians behaving with breathtaking irrationality over a leadership challenge. Still, count the prediction as this: Theresa May isn't going anywhere any time soon, or if she does, it'll be a stunning disaster.