(Bloomberg) — Political horizons vary. There’s the next election, the next budget cycle, the next big speech. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May can see only as far as the next crisis.
A fresh round of Brexit talks kick off next week, which should be the focus of government attention. But May’s big announcement Friday was a new code of conduct for Conservative politicians in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal that’s forced the resignation of her defence secretary, Michael Fallon. One of her own lawmakers remarked privately that far from focusing on the long term, she is now just trying to get through the next 15 minutes.
More allegations over the weekend could raise the stakes for the embattled premier, whose situation has been precarious since June, when the Tories lost their parliamentary majority. Yet Fallon’s departure underscored the dangers of choosing a new leader. Until he quit, he was seen by many as an ideal caretaker prime minister.
“It’s a restless party, but there’s no obvious person to step in and Conservative MPs aren’t stupid, they know the dangers of a government collapse,” said Justin Fisher, professor of politics at Brunel University in northwest London,
The sexual harassment scandal has seen women speaking out about their treatment at the hands of male politicians, stretching back over years. But the opposition Labour Party isn’t benefiting from May’s discomfort.
It has suspended two lawmakers in the past fortnight while it investigates allegations of inappropriate conduct. One of its activists has also alleged that she was raped by another activist at a party event, and then advised to stay quiet about it by a Labour official.
May will meet Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Monday to discuss a cross-party approach to the scandal. His party announced its own response late Friday, saying it would appoint a specialist organization to offer advice and support to victims of harassment. But both leaders are being urged to take more dramatic action to get ahead of the crisis.
“This is a cultural issue in parties, and they have got to grasp the nettle,” Labour lawmaker Jess Phillips said. “Trying to cope individually with each thing as it comes and starting a hundred inquiries is just kicking the can down the road. Everybody knows it has be be addressed, but they don’t want to do it because they’re all still trying to protect themselves.”
The problem for May is that taking any radical action — say in the form of a major reshuffle or expelling lawmakers found to have behaved improperly from her party — might jeopardize her government. She is nine seats short of a Parliamentary majority, kept in place by a deal with 10 Northern Irish lawmakers.
Were she to punish members of her party, she would be unable to rely on them voting with her. And if she provokes enough lawmakers to quit Parliament and force by-elections, it could start a chain of events that leads to another election.
In the mean time, May remains in place. Having had her fingers burned being bold, with the surprise snap election in June, her style since has reverted to caution. The tricky part is maintaining her focus when her own party is riven by domestic divisions on Europe.
Stewart Wood, who was an adviser to the embattled Prime Minister Gordon Brown, said a sense of constant crisis made it difficult to focus on strategy.
“You don’t get political breathing room, and meetings about big vision things end up being about the latest crisis,” he said. “I remember policy experts on climate change, finally in a meeting with Gordon they’d prepared for for weeks, sitting silently while he talked to me about some rogue backbencher.”
In the meantime, the pressures are mounting to deliver tangible results after months of Brexit negotiations with Brussels.
Talks are deadlocked, and in just six weeks May will need to come up with what promises be a politically fraught proposal to settle exit payments to the European Union. Back in London, Parliament passed a motion calling on the government to release its internal research into the impact of leaving the European Union on 58 sectors of the British economy.
The mood music going into a new round of talks next Thursday is not good. The Telegraph reported late Friday that the EU side is furious that the U.K. will bring nothing new to the table to break the impasse.