The Conservative party is, infamously, an autocracy tempered by assassination. If they win elections, or look like winning them, Tory leaders can do pretty much what they want. If they lose them, they are toast.
If we were living in normal, as opposed to interesting, times, Theresa May would be preparing her resignation statement and her potential successors readying themselves for the contest to replace her. But we are not living in normal times. Whether or not Brexit still means Brexit — and at the moment we’d be wise not to assume anything — it means the Conservatives can’t simply get shot of their leader in response to the electoral disaster into which she has led them.
Negotiations with the EU27 formally begin in a few days’ time. Conducting a full-blown leadership contest, involving a first round at Westminster and then a ballot of all Conservative party members, when those talks are ongoing is going to be very, very difficult, not to say destabilising. And that’s presuming the other member states will even want to start the process when they won’t know who they’re dealing with and won’t know just how hard or soft a Brexit whoever that person is will want to pursue.
True, the fact that Germany goes to the polls in the autumn perhaps buys the Tories some time. But they may feel, for the third time since it was first introduced, that they need to short-circuit their own process and avoid involving the grassroots in the decision by converging on a single candidate — another coronation rather than a contest.
But the danger of doing that is there for all of us to see. Mrs May was chosen last summer without being field-tested — and the result was a Conservative party going into an election it need never have called led by a leader who proved completely unable to connect with the electorate when it came to the crunch.
Ensuring this doesn’t happen again has to be a priority for a party that knows that another election is almost certainly imminent. Minority governments — let alone minority governments in the UK — do not tend to last that long. The Tories cannot, and will not, go into the next national contest with Mrs May at the helm.
And that, of course, presumes that she and whichever of her colleagues can lay claim to being the leadership of the party are in a position to provide Britain with a government in the medium term. The post-election parliamentary mathematics mean that it’s down to the Conservatives; but their choices are spectacularly limited.
Presumably (but who knows anything anymore?) a German-style grand coalition with Labour is out of the question and the Liberal Democrats may be stupid, but they’re not that stupid. Nor are the Scottish National party. That leaves the Democratic Unionists — a traditionally sectarian, loyalist party that the vast bulk of British voters wouldn’t tolerate as a coalition partner and which could make Brexit negotiations over the north-south border in Ireland even stickier than they are already. The DUP will want some sort of written contract giving them guarantees in return for their support. The Tories will want to preserve as much room for manoeuvre as possible.
But, like the EU27 the DUP will want to know who they’re dealing with. All roads, then, lead back to the Tory leadership. The party mustn’t panic. But it must decide.