It is the butterfly-effect theory of politics made instantly visible. Dogged reporters uncover a story of Hollywood sexual assault, and across the globe one British cabinet minister resigns; another fights frantically to keep his job; a weak prime minister, Theresa May, finds the murmurs of discontent within her party swelling to an ominous chant; and suddenly the survival of her government and her ability to deliver a successful Brexit have all been thrown into question.
“We’ve had enough of this generation,” one furious young Conservative member of Parliament told me. “They’re frankly embarrassing. What have they ever given us? Brexit, austerity, Theresa May, the threat of Boris Johnson, and now sex and sleaze. Last week, the mood of my generation changed from quietly planning for the future to ‘This can’t go on.’ ”
This member of Parliament is, like his contemporaries, livid and disbelieving at the tarnishing of the Conservative Party’s name by reports about inappropriate behavior of men two or three decades older. He and the majority of his peers think of themselves as decent mainstream moderates. They mostly entered Parliament within the past seven years, carefully selected as modernizers under the last prime minister, David Cameron. They came from businesses where, as one put it, “we’d have been instantly sacked if we’d behaved like that.” They want the groping dinosaurs and those who enable them out of power before they damage the party any more.
As I’ve talked to Tories in the past few days, they have repeatedly told me that this was a “tipping point.” It is the accumulation of evidence of incompetence followed by outdated sexism that has electrified them.
A Conservative member of Parliament said that the reality is that if Mrs. May’s cabinet had appeared to know what it was doing — on Brexit or on anything else — then these sexual offenses could have been shrugged off. But the prime minister’s paralysis and indecision over Brexit and the absence of any significant domestic reforms from a government entirely distracted by the rupture ahead have revealed that there is a terrible gulf where leadership should be.
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Mrs. May had a chance to rescue herself from some of that disillusionment on Thursday morning, when she had to pick a successor to the disgraced defense secretary, who resigned amid swirls of rumors. She could have used that opportunity to signal a new direction, breaking with the tarnished culture and bringing in fresh faces.
Rumors swept Westminster that she might appoint the first woman as defense secretary. People I spoke to were hopeful that she might pick one of the party’s talented female, black or Asian rising stars in Parliament.
Instead, in an astounding display of political deafness, Mrs. May went for the appointment that made her feel safest, moving her chief whip and one of her closest confidants, Gavin Williamson, into the job. His deputy, another white man, moved up to take his place.
The response from much of the younger section of the party has been fury. Mr. Williamson, though only 41, is known for his ties to the old guard. He was immediately described by two members of Parliament (though anonymously) as a “snake” or a “parasite.” This, after all, is the man whose job it has been to know exactly what his party members’ sexual transgressions are and to use them as weapons to ensure political loyalty, rather than deciding that some of them merit action by the party or the police. Mr. Williamson is at the heart of the old Conservative culture, not a representation of the new.
The problem for Mrs. May is that almost overnight, the previously moderate, quiescent center of the party has been galvanized. Until now they, unlike the hard-line Brexiteers, have followed a policy of declining to make trouble for the prime minister, recognizing how tough the task ahead of her is and giving her the benefit of the doubt. “Not anymore,” one said to me grimly.
These Tories are seriously afraid that unless something changes, they could be heading for electoral and economic disaster with a combination of a chaotic, ill-planned Brexit and the appearance of complacent and entitled nastiness. They know that Mrs. May, a principled woman, is personally blameless and embarrassed by the atmosphere of sexual scandal. But they have lost faith in her ability to control her party or her cabinet, and by her evident timidity when faced by Boris Johnson, her scheming, ambitious, incompetent foreign secretary.
Conservative members of Parliament fear that this void at the top of their party will have political consequences. Mrs. May has a tiny working majority in Parliament, and to prepare for Brexit she has to spend the next months passing immensely complex legislation transferring four decades of European rules into British law. She needs every vote she can get.
Now many of these moderate members of Parliament, distrusting her judgment, are saying that they are going to insist on amendments that would create a softer Brexit, retaining closer links with Europe, rather than the hard Brexit that the party’s Euroskeptics have been driving Mrs. May toward. (Whether they stand by these threats once temperatures cool remains to be seen.) “There are at least 150 of us,” one Conservative said. “And now we’re going to have a voice.”
But there is a limit to this threatened rebellion. No one yet wants to see Mrs. May out of power for the same reason that has kept her there since she failed to win the election: Every faction fears that whoever replaces her may be worse. It’s influence over an embattled prime minister that everyone seeks, as they compete desperately for their visions of the future and their own political survival.
Jenni Russell, a journalist and broadcaster, is a columnist for The Times of London.