Who will replace Theresa May?

Theresa May coughing © Rex Features
Post-speech sympathy soon gave way to plotting

Theresa May “coughed and spluttered through her ill-fated party conference speech” last week, says The Observer’s Toby Helm. While there was a “wave of post-speech sympathy” for her problems, which included a prankster presenting her with a P45, “it was not long before the plotting began”. The conference has “left a deep wound on the prime minister” and many MPs “feel she should fall on her sword”.

It’s certainly hard to believe that May “can be the Tories’ zombie creature all the way to Brexit in 2019”, argues Sarah Baxter in The Sunday Times. If May does go the natural choice is Boris Johnson, “who has more reason to make a success of Brexit than anyone else in the cabinet”.

While those who supported Remain “may never give him their heart, as Londoners did when he was mayor”, Johnson could “gain their respect by knuckling down… [and] devising some bold policies on housing and tuition fees with cross-party appeal”.

Not so fast, says Matthew d’Ancona in The Guardian. It would be “ridiculous” if the talented leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson “were not a contender”.

Indeed, “as she delivered her barnstorming speech, one could see that the audience was both baffled and bewitched” by her “potential electoral reach far beyond the core Tory vote”. While Davidson is not an MP, May could boost her national profile by making her chair of the Conservatives.

Forget all this talk of a leadership election, says Toby Young on Spectator.co.uk. “One thing that is abundantly clear, wandering the halls of the Manchester Central, is that the party has no appetite for a leadership election before 29 March 2019.”

After all, “it would be politically toxic for the Conservatives to waste several weeks choosing a new leader when they should be getting on with negotiating Brexit”. It could also trigger a general election, as the Tories don’t have a Commons majority and can’t rely on the DUP’s continued support.An election now would mean “several Conservative MPs losing their seats and – worse – a Labour government”.

In any case, adds Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times, the odds are that “no leader can reconcile [the Tories’] differences on Europe”. Even if they replaced May with a more popular leader, such as Ruth Davidson or Boris Johnson, “once the sugar rush of their election had passed, this test would remain as daunting and probably impossible as it was under May”. The upshot? She can probably endure “as long as her absorptive capacity for punishment holds up”.

Sturgeon tries to relaunch the SNP

“Just two years ago Nicola Sturgeon seemed invincible,” says The Guardian’s Martin Kettle. Now “the shine has come off”. Her approval ratings are “well adrift of this year’s cult politicians, Jeremy Corbyn on the left and Ruth Davidson on the right”.

The SNP “lost a quarter of its votes and 21 of its 56 seats” at June’s election and “Scottish opinion is currently 58% to 42% against a second referendum at any time in the next five years”. Overall, “the wheel of Scottish politics is turning in new ways”.The SNP’s problem is that “surges in independence sentiment north of the border have been overcome by economic reality”, says the Financial Times.

Soaring revenues from North Sea oil “failed to materialise”. Meanwhile,“leaving the UK would not guarantee Scotland a place in the EU, raising questions over future currency and trading arrangements”. At the same time, the party has been in power for ten years and has a “disappointing record on public services”.

Education is a particular worry, says The Times. Late last year Scotland produced its worst showing in the international Pisa student rankings, with maths, reading and science scores dwindling. 

No wonder Sturgeon is now considering adopting some of England’s recent education reforms and trying to regain the initiative with eye-catching new initiatives, including a publicly owned energy firm, more money for childcare, and “possibly raised taxes to pay for it all”. She must hope “voters do not conclude that this offer is too little, too late”.