Theresa May faces a gruelling period in office, dominated by Brexit. She should reshape her Cabinet and set out a clearer political vision
The next two years are likely to be the most gruelling in British peacetime history. Negotiations with the European Union will be fraught, and possibly fruitless. Angela Merkel may come to our rescue, as many Brexiteers hope — or she may not. The pound will probably see-saw and the economy may splutter. Meanwhile Labour will complete its transformation into a fully-fledged anti-Brexit party, and Euro-friendly Tory rebels can be counted on to cause trouble. There are bound to be knife-edge votes in Parliament. EU leaders and officials will repeatedly tell us we are deluded. And as problems pile up, the BBC and the rest of the Remainer media are certain to insist that the government has lost the plot, and Britain is teetering on the edge of catastrophe. There will be ever louder, and perhaps more enticing, calls for us not to leave after all.
It is going to be a very, very difficult time for the Prime Minister of this country. Is it really plausible that Theresa May can lead us successfully through these enormous challenges? Could Churchill have done so? Or Thatcher? If there is any doubt about those heroic leaders, how much more must there be about poor Mrs May.
When she stood outside Downing Street 15 months ago, it seemed to many people — and not just Tories — that the gods which sometimes favour our island race had miraculously spirited up the right saviour. Even some of those who had supported Boris were relieved that we had Theresa. But no modern political reputation has deflated more quickly, not even Gordon Brown’s. She threw away the largest poll lead in recent history, and lost her party its overall Commons majority. In the process this suddenly less likeable and often painfully ill-at-ease woman displayed a fatal combination of pig-headed stubbornness, arrogance, indecisiveness and even political cowardice.
It is not as though Brexit is the only problem looming over her. Jeremy Corbyn, once lampooned by the Tories and written off by the political class, is a short step away from power. Mrs May has utterly failed to characterise him as the extremist he surely is. Neither his past support for the IRA nor his association with Islamic extremists nor his former endorsement of the crazy socialist regime in Venezuela have dented his popularity among younger voters. He plainly taps into many of their aspirations and frustrations — over the lack of affordable housing and the exorbitant cost of a university education, for example — in a way the Tory leadership seems incapable of doing.
The case for the prosecution is pretty straightforward. It is that Theresa May has been wildly over-promoted. She was a competent Home Secretary who, as a result of her own machinations, and the unexpected collapse of the Johnson/Gove ticket, found herself Prime Minister. To begin with, she struck the right note, appearing to connect with the “just about managing” class whose members have never really recovered from the Great Recession. At the Conservative Party conference a year ago she declared that “the government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the rich and powerful but by the interests of ordinary, working-class families.” Unusual — and stirring — words from a modern Tory. But it soon became clear that she did not have a great number of ideas about how to help these people, or about any other issue for that matter, save those implanted in her porous mind by her advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, the so-called “gruesome twosome”. Then came the hike in Snowdonia with her husband Philip, and the fatal decision to call a June election.
I will skip over most of that well-trodden ground and merely ask a simple question. Didn’t her reliance on Timothy and Hill bespeak an alarming lack of intellectual self-confidence, as well as a disturbing lack of judgment? Although she had parted company with them when she was at the Home Office, she recalled them as her joint chiefs of staff the moment she arrived at Number Ten. Nick Timothy, of course, later became the main proponent of the so-called dementia tax, which scared some older voters because it envisaged no cap on social care costs, whether at home or in nursing homes, though a person with less than £100,000 of assets wouldn’t have to pay. It was an intellectually defensible policy, but in the middle of an election campaign a needless self-inflicted wound.
According to someone present during election strategy meetings, Mrs May often had little to say, and sometimes nothing at all. She was apt to defer to the “gruesome twosome”. On one occasion, when she was, unusually, disagreeing with the pugilistic Fiona Hill, her hand could be seen to shake. The irony is that, however overbearing and overreaching Timothy and Hill were as advisers, their forced departure after the election disaster has left the Prime Minister without much intellectual ballast. Her rhetoric about helping the just-about-managing has dwindled away, and plans to curb excessive boardroom pay (chiefly inspired by Nick Timothy) have been watered down.
Any party leader who had run such a calamitous campaign would, in normal circumstances, have been bundled out of the door. Mrs May’s immediate inclination was to go of her own accord. But David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, and Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, persuaded her to stay. So, one may surmise, did her husband Philip, who had been party to that disastrous brainstorming session in the Welsh mountains, though according to a new book by political journalists Tim Ross and Tom McTague (Betting The House, Biteback, £12.99) even he wondered whether she should resign. The same book repeats the widely accepted story that Boris Johnson gave her a gratefully seized assurance that he wouldn’t move against her if she chose to battle on. No one, not even Boris, wanted the crown in those unpropitious circumstances, and the need to maintain stability during the Brexit process weighed on every mind. Mrs May could not, at least at that moment, be sacrificed.
And so she picked herself up, telling backbench Tory MPs that, as she had got them into “this mess”, she would get them out of it. A minister who knows her well, and has observed her in action several times over the past few months, says that much of her confidence has been restored — though he adds that she has never been the most confident of politicians. There is little doubt that her clinging on, as well as her declaration that she intends to fight the next general election, which could be as far away as 2022, have given her a degree of greater credibility.
I suspect, though, that not many Tory hearts have been softened or hopes been lifted — certainly not in local Conservative associations, where spirits are low, Mrs May unpopular, and some souls so desperate that they are pining for Jacob Rees-Mogg who, admirable though he certainly is, may perhaps not yet be ready to assume the highest office in the land.
Theresa May may not be, in the spiteful words of her new arch-enemy and former Cabinet colleague George Osborne, “a dead woman walking”. (Osborne has surely done more harm to himself than he has to her by his public vitriol. Donald Trump could have scarcely surpassed the former Chancellor’s reported remark that he would not rest until the Prime Minister was “chopped up in bags in my freezer”.) But she is nonetheless badly damaged and survives on sufferance. An insight into her political vulnerability was recently offered by one of her apparent defenders, Graham Brady, a powerful figure in the party. When asked by the BBC whether he thought it a good thing that Mrs May had declared she was around for the long term, Brady replied that it was. Then he added somewhat ominously: “But it’s always subject to the support of colleagues.” A few seconds later, having been asked whether Tory MPs liked the idea of her leading the party into the next election, he said: “Yes, absolutely. At the moment [my italics] we are solidly behind Theresa May.”
For all that, there seems to be no appetite in the parliamentary Conservative Party or the Cabinet to get rid of her in the foreseeable future. Even the Europhile Kenneth Clarke has said publicly that she must stay to see Brexit through. Before and during the Tory conference, which lasts from October 1 to 4, there will very likely be sniping on the sidelines of the sort we have recently heard from the millionaire Tory donor Lord Harris, who told the increasingly anti-May Times that the Prime Minister is “hopeless and weak”. Yet it seems probable that she will survive the ordeal since the parliamentary party is in no mood for regicide as the country prepares for Brexit, and fears that a leadership context might somehow trigger a general election which Labour could well win. Besides, there are few plausible, or even eager, plotters waiting in the wings — with the possible exception of Boris Johnson.
On the first day of the conference (which happens to be her 61st birthday) she may deliver a mea culpa speech, and on the last a rousing call to the troops, which in the way of these things is likely to be enthusiastically received unless she makes a fantastic bosh of it. However she chooses to do it, she will have to explain to party members and the wider country why the election campaign was such a fiasco, and give people some reason to believe that she has learnt from her mistakes. A much smaller, though extremely damaging, faux pas was her refusal to meet any survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire the day after the inferno. She needs to show that she recognises her behaviour showed something about her character — “very, very insular and buttoned-up” is how one long-term friend describes it — which many voters did not like.
But whatever apologies may fall from her lips she will essentially be the same Theresa May at the end of the conference. It is a regrettable fact of life that, as we grow older, defects such as indecisiveness, absence of vision and weak leadership are hard, if not impossible, to cure. Over 50, most of us would struggle to undo our faults even when our shortcomings had been painfully illuminated. Moreover, at any age we all have to live with our intellectual limitations. Those who think the Prime Minister may learn from her mistakes, and re-emerge as an altogether more formidable politician, are probably being overly optimistic. She is what she is.
And yet it is surely possible that after her fall from grace her failings are being exaggerated and her virtues neglected. There is a pack tendency amongst many commentators (I certainly don’t exclude myself) which leads us to kick to death the politicians whom we recently venerated. Only six months ago I wrote in these pages of Mrs May’s commanding position in British politics. Her supremacy was almost universally accepted. Many of us found something to admire in this apparently steely woman: her determination (which she showed after the terrorist outrage in Westminster), her decency (especially welcome after the raffish Cameron years) and her moral seriousness (“politics is not a game,” she told the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon). Those favourable assessments have had to be reappraised in the light of that extraordinary election campaign, but must they be altogether jettisoned?
As I write, she is on the verge of making a speech about Brexit in Florence. Number Ten hopes that such a tour d’horizon will allow the party conference more scope to discuss other issues than Brexit. Her disquisition needs to be more specific about British intentions than her address at Lancaster House last January, and to contain more than expressions of goodwill towards our European partners and promises of continuing security cooperation. She must in some way take charge of the process, display resolution and fortitude, and radiate more optimism than she has so far done. But if she gives away too many details — for example on the size of the ransom which we may pay the EU — she may run into trouble with the hardline Brexiteers, who in Cabinet are chiefly represented by Boris.
Ah, Boris! He is the main thorn in her side. Of course he craves her job, but probably not at the moment. It is a mistake with Boris to assume that every single thing he does is motivated by feverish ambition. He does have principles and beliefs. One very strongly held view of his is that Britain can have a wonderful future outside the EU, and should not shackle itself to a kind of halfway house agreement that prevents it from achieving its glorious destiny. It was this feeling that lay behind his recent outburst. The sepulchral Philip Hammond and the lightweight Amber Rudd (and most of the civil service, one strongly suspects) take the opposite view. They convey caution, fear, and too transparent a willingness to compromise. The best way for Theresa May to see off Boris would be to adopt some of his optimism while retaining the impression that she is much less wild and turbulent than he is — and also more realistic.
Politics are so febrile at the moment that it would be foolish to make any hard-and-fast predictions about the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. A lot does depend on the readiness of Angela Merkel to break the deadlock in Brussels between Michel Barnier and David Davis. (Naturally my heart is with Davis, whom I know and like, though it is hard to ignore stories about his lack of application, and the suggestion that he has a tendency, as one colleague puts it, to “swagger in his sleep”.) It is possible too that President Macron (who knows this country well, and likes it) will turn out to be more pro-British than is generally assumed — certainly more so than his compatriot Michel Barnier, the EU’s prickly and rigid chief negotiatior, who seems to share the distaste for la perfide Albion evinced by most of the French political class.
On the plus side, despite Boris’s unpredictable interventions, there is more unity in the Cabinet than one might expect. This is a sign of her weakness, as is the readiness of the Foreign Secretary to declaim his views. For the moment most of her colleagues are huddling around her as wildebeest will protect one of their own who is vulnerable to attack. The Boris problem aside, Cabinet government is operating surprisingly well in the circumstances. My guess is that a sizeable divorce bill will soon be agreed that goes far beyond our legal obligations, and that this offer will be made, despite resistance from Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, a few hardline Tory MPs and possibly the pro-Brexit press, as a quid pro quo for a mutually beneficial trade arrangement. Some sort of agreement incorporating a transition period of two or three years will also be settled. Boris in the end may have to buckle if Mrs May can succeed in arguing that she has not capitulated to the EU. Whether a final deal will then clear Parliament is another matter.
The danger is the Brexit process will be so exhausting that it soaks up nearly all Theresa May’s and the Government’s energies, and leaves little scope for other policies. At least seven manifesto pledges have already been dropped, including a measure to allow more grammar schools and a commitment to cap energy bills, because the government is not sure it could get them through Parliament, or perhaps lacks the will to try. There is a policy vacuum at the heart of the government which Mrs May needs to fill.
She should set out a vision which is more than a collection of soundbites about helping the just-about-managing, and unveil some policies. Her advisers hope she will set the ball rolling in her major conference speech. One idea is to lower the usurious 6.1 per cent interest rate on student loans. Another may be to boost the supply of affordable homes — though there has been so much talk along these lines over the years, and so little action, that voters can be forgiven for being sceptical. Both measures would be targeted at disgruntled and alienated young voters, who backed Jeremy Corbyn in such large numbers at the election. But will they be tempted? A recent poll suggested that, among those aged between 18 and 24, 66 per cent support Labour and only 14 per cent Tory. One suspects that more than a couple of douceurs will be required to swing young people to the Conservative cause.
Surely what is needed is a robust expression of Tory values accompanied by a sustained critique of Jeremy Corbyn’s extreme socialism which, if ever enacted, would make the 1970s look like a gentle walk around the park. Nobody, after all, has the faintest idea of what Mayism stands for, and relatively little notion of what constitutes modern Conservatism. In the 1970s, when Theresa May was reading Geography at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, Conservative politicians such as Sir Keith Joseph toured the universities to promote new ideas which literally were to change the world. Of course, you need a political philosophy if you are to inspire the young or anyone else, which takes us back to the question as to whether our Prime Minister has anything resembling one. If she doesn’t, God help us, since an antidote to the meretricious lure of Corbyn is urgently needed.
By the way, it goes without saying that the lacklustre and ineffectual Sir Patrick McLoughlin should be replaced as chairman of the party, as he has reportedly accepted he will be. A Tory revival is only possible if the constituency foot soldiers — neglected by David Cameron, and since the election out of love with Theresa May — rally to the cause. The Cabinet, which seems to have more than its fair share of mediocre ministers, could also do with some new blood. Moreover, there are lots of talented junior ministers and MPs without office whom the Prime Minister should be bringing forward, though I shan’t embarrass them by mentioning their names now.
As for Corbyn, he is still not treated by the Tories as the lethal menace he unquestionably is. It’s no good simply hoping he will shoot himself in the foot. The RMT and Unite unions are seemingly contemplating a series of political strikes. (Since Corbyn became leader the unions have poured £27 million into Labour’s coffers.) If these strikes materialise, it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of the Conservative Party to represent them for what they will be — an attempt by the far Left to unseat the democratically elected Prime Minister of Great Britain.
It’s hard to believe that millions of young voters really want the economic misery Jeremy Corbyn would undoubtedly usher in. The trouble is that no Tory has succeeded in convincing them this would be the inescapable outcome. Nor has Mrs May started to set out an alternative vision which might persuade even some of them that they would have a better future under a Conservative government.
Some pundits suggest that a kind of sea-change has taken place in British society born of long years of austerity, and fostered by the explosion of social media, which has been brilliantly exploited by Labour campaigners and is still not properly understood by the Tories. They argue that much of the country has grown irrevocably tired of the Conservatives, and Corbyn’s day is bound to come. It is a grim prognosis which no Tory — no patriot, I would say — should accept without a fight.
Brexit is, of course, going to be by far the greatest challenge. Hitherto — understandably, given that she voted Remain — Mrs May has given the impression of honourably carrying out the democratic verdict of the British people like a lawyer sticking to a tricky brief. The best thing she can do for herself, and the country, is to display some infectious enthusiasm. Is this too much to ask? Can she do it?
Barring accidents Mrs May is going to be Prime Minister for the next 18 months, and very possibly longer. Can she really deliver a successful Brexit while saving the country from Jeremy Corbyn? Over recent weeks she has sometimes looked dispirited and careworn, as though struggling to cope with the monumental tasks that lie before her. People forget that she suffers from Type 1 diabetes, a serious condition which means that she has to watch what she eats extremely carefully, and inject herself with insulin at least four times a day. The burdens on her must be very great. Yet her friends say she has a sense of Christian duty, and will battle on.
What a battle it is going to be. Looking at Theresa May, with her limitations and her strengths, I can’t honestly say that I am brimming with confidence about the short-term future of this country or the Conservative Party. But there is still good reason to hope. There is, as it happens, no one else.