‘Lame Duck for Christmas!’ some of the headlines have announced mockingly over the past few days, after Theresa May said she does not plan to lead the Tories into a future election. Reaffirmed as party leader by a vote of confidence last week, but at the price of committing herself to a shortened tenure, she is instantly judged to have surrendered more of her authority and is now a target for a confidence motion from the opposition.
It is true that a leader who has signalled their own departure progressively loses the power to control events.
There is less reason to fear someone who will soon depart, and power diminishes without some element of fear. Positioning for the succession by others becomes legitimised, and followers transfer their loyalties to likely future leaders.
Yet May’s particular situation is more complicated than that, and in some ways recent events have increased her freedom of manoeuvre and ability to get her way, should she choose to make the most of it.
A decision not to stand for election again can be liberating, freeing a prime minister who has a strong sense of the national interest to pursue it without inhibition. The failure of the attempt to topple her means she cannot be challenged again within her party for a full year. She has a brief but distinct moment in history to shape the future of party and country before she goes.
There is the power to think aloud. Admittedly that’s not her style, but May will leave office as mainstream politics across many western countries faces being overwhelmed. Consumed as we are with Brexit, we only have to lift our eyes from our navels to see Emmanuel Macron’s authority being shattered, Italy adopting crazy economics and the German party system teetering on the edge of collapse Europe seems to be heading for a crisis of massive dimensions. A departing leader can make the speeches or commission the thinking necessary to put her party at the forefront of working out the ideas for the future — provided that party can survive the immediate crisis of our own.
Yet on Brexit, May has a temporary period of increased leverage. She faces many roadblocks to any route out of this maze, but she can now be a more substantial, deadweight, roadblock in her own right. While lacking the strength of support to get her own deal through, she can if she wishes prevent any other solution being adopted. The legislation essential to making sense of a no-deal Brexit — such as providing relevant powers for customs and immigration officials — cannot be passed without her approval.
No bill to promote a second referendum can make any headway against her opposition. No Norway-plus option has the slightest chance of passing if she will not countenance it. No series of “indicative votes” to give the decisions to Parliament can be staged without her consent. Someone who is leaving office in the not-too-distant future but has been reconfirmed in it for 12 months does not have to be bullied by anyone.
Correspondingly, if she were to say, upon a defeat of her own proposal, that she was swinging her weight behind any one of these ideas, it would become the front-running possibility. No new internal party confidence vote can be raised against her to prevent it. She could only be brought down by a Commons vote of no confidence in her government, or perhaps by the personal one now tabled by Labour, although the consequences of that passing are unclear. That would need Tory or DUP MPs to vote against her, but if they produced a Corbyn ministry by doing so they would live out their lives as reviled and contemptible figures, and deservedly so.
She could even revoke the use of Article 50, an action now ruled as lawful by the European Court of Justice, until Parliament came to its senses and agreed on a way forward. I’m not suggesting that, — she correctly sees it as her duty to implement the outcome of the referendum — but it illustrates the point that she has more leverage than anyone else, if she wishes to use it. She still needs others to secure any workable outcome, but they also need her if they want their own outcome, and more than they did a week ago. If she wants to stop a no-deal Brexit, she can.
It is quite possible that the prime minister will not exploit these opportunities and powers. Her natural method is to avoid risk or drama wherever possible. But there is a choice now between sinking deeper into a morass of division and disappearing with only the morass as a legacy, or using to the full the enhanced chance to shape the future that her opponents have unwittingly handed to her.
It is true that a lame duck does not often achieve very much in politics. But a lame duck with attitude can spring some sharp and painful surprises, knowing it has very little to lose. I hope May takes some fresh air and perspective over Christmas, and returns to Westminster with exactly that attitude.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
William Hague is the former foreign secretary of the UK.