31 Jan 2018

Leadership challenge threat hangs over May’s China trip

In China they boast that their system allows their leaders to think in terms of decades.

Their newly arrived guest of honour, Mrs May, is lucky to plan 24 hours in advance.

On the long flight over to China, Mrs May’s team were asked if the PM had internet contact to keep her in touch with whether there had been a challenge to her leadership during the flight. There were always means of getting information to the PM was the guidance.

The organised factions plotting her downfall after her Conference speech have been on armed truce. It’s more random forces that could threaten here now. The rules allowing for 48 MPs to write confidential letters demanding a vote of no confidence mean the party could tip suddenly and without coordination into a leadership challenge at any minute.

theresa may

That threat hangs over this trip and Theresa May was asked about it on the flight. She said she wouldn’t just walk if the 48 letters triggered a contest. She reheated the line she had to use on another foreign trip last August about not being a quitter.

The immediate post election flurry of activity aimed at replacing her resurfaced later in the summer,  then once again after the conference speech from hell and then yet again after the DUP threatened to oppose the Phase 1 Brexit deal in December. We now have another round of mutterings post the reshuffle that barely was. That’s 5 insurgencies of varying scale in 8 months.

Mrs May said on the plane that she didn’t question the party rules. She acknowledged that the government had to do better getting its message across and telling voters about their achievements.

But her disappointed market is closer to home than that: it includes ministers as well as Tory backbenchers.

Theresa May’s first stop was Wuhan, where Chairman Mao revived his own faltering leadership in 1966 with a very public swim showing his vitality .
His Party spin team rather went into overdrive suggesting an implausible personal best.

Mrs May met students studying English and was shown a model of her own home in Downing Street. She peered in, maybe wondering if someone else had taken up occupancy.

One member of the trade delegation seemed already weary of the experience. He bemoaned a Prime Minister who “isn’t really there.” He also pined for the George Osborne/David Cameron approach to China which Theresa May has disavowed. He said the Chinese were disappointed by her so far and were “studying her very carefully” on this trip.

We are currently at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing where she is about to hold talks with Premier Li after a ceremonial welcome.

Mrs May kicked off her trip saying she would be bringing up human rights and Hong Kong in her bilateral conversations. One who has worked closely with Theresa May told me that for her the China relationship is “really all about security.” Dealing with China,  the source said, “is one of those occasions where she struggles to shake off the Home Secretary experience.”

Theresa May, the source said, thinks David Cameron and George Osborne were “very misty eyed and slightly naive” where China was concerned – you get a flavour of Mr Osborne’s very different approach.

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