UK Politics

Theresa May's numbers game

Theresa May Image copyright Reuters

Theresa May's government is riding high in the opinion polls at the moment but could be vulnerable in Parliament. What does she need to do to keep her backbenchers on side?

When she replaced him as prime minister in July, Theresa May also took on David Cameron's small Commons majority, and all the problems that come with it.

The government's "working majority" - calculated when you take away the non-voting Speaker, deputy speakers and Sinn Fein members, as well as the two seats left vacant by the resignations of Conservatives Zac Goldsmith and Stephen Phillips - is just 14, meaning the prime minister needs to work extra hard to ensure her MPs back her, and her policies.

If Labour, the SNP and other smaller parties work together on an issue, they need only to attract a handful of unhappy Conservatives - seven - to their side and the government risks defeat.

Going rogue

Mrs May is widely regarded as one of the more "unclubbable" politicians, admitting when running for leadership of the Conservative party that she did not "go drinking in Parliament's bars" and preferred to get "on with the job".

That has put her at a disadvantage, says The Spectator's Katy Balls, because she does not have a ready-made network of supporters.

"Unlike George Osborne, who was constantly meeting with MPs and having drinks parties, Theresa May has never really courted her party like that," she says. "They need a bit more TLC almost, to stay behaved. They're not getting that, which allows them to go a bit more rogue."

The single biggest issue on the prime minister's agenda is Brexit and, whether she likes it or not, it is likely to define her entire premiership.

The government has been locked in a battle in the High Court against a ruling on triggering Article 50, the formal notification of leaving the EU.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The Supreme Court will consider next month on whether MPs must vote on triggering Article 50

If the appeal in the Supreme Court fails and Mrs May is instead required to bring forward legislation in the Commons to trigger Brexit talks, she can expect to win the backing of her MPs. Labour will also vote in favour, though a handful of their MPs and some from smaller parties have told the BBC they will vote against.

Former Tory minister Anna Soubry, who was a vocal Remain supporter during the campaign, has warned against the government's reluctance to allow Parliament to delve into the detail, arguing that a vote on Brexit would "strengthen Theresa May's hand".

Another of her MPs has warned that the prime minister must not forget she has to take her MPs with her.

Heidi Allen, whose maiden speech attacked the government's policy on tax credit cuts, says Mrs May is absolutely determined to deliver Brexit because that is what the British people want.

"My sense is just that Theresa is an almost civil servant-like politician. She believes that she's got a job to do and nothing should stand in her way.

"I think that it's her determination that's making her perhaps a little single-minded."

Former cabinet minister Peter Lilley is a veteran of the battles in the Conservative Party over Europe in the 1990s, which saw an organised rebellion over the Maastricht Treaty erode John Major's majority and turn him into a leader widely seen as lacking authority within his own party.

Although Conservative MPs were broadly split over Leave and Remain before the referendum, Mr Lilley thinks most of them want to now make Brexit work.

Image caption Peter Lilley remembers the Tory battles over Europe in the 1990s

"They're relieved that the initial reaction of the economy has entirely wrong-footed the doom-mongers in the Treasury and the Bank of England," he says.

"There's a feeling of pretty good unanimity. The vast majority of those who supported remain want to make a success of it."

Mrs May's political life is not all about Brexit.

There has been disquiet over issues such as opening new grammar schools and welfare changes. Some are not happy over the "trashing" of David Cameron's legacy.

So can the prime minister rely on that slim majority to hold?

Ms Allen certainly thinks rebellion is a good thing, when well used.

"We have a lot if independent-minded MPs," she says. "We came here to make a difference, not just toe the party line."

Ms Soubry says she was heartened by the prime minister's first speech, delivered on the day she took over from Mr Cameron.

Mrs May spoke of leading a government "driven not by the interests of the privileged few" and promised to make Britain "a country that works for everyone".

However, Ms Soubry warns that her actions need to match her words.

"If there's any disquiet, it's that Theresa needs now to be true now to the words, the sentiment, the admirable goals and her dream and vision of our country. She's now got to be true to what she said on the steps of Downing Street."

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