What the PM’s po­lit­i­cal death means for Scot­land

Sunday Herald - - COMMENT - Iain Macwhirter

THE odd­est thing about Theresa May’s dis­as­trous ap­pear­ance at the Tory con­fer­ence last week was her bracelet. It was a large piece show­ing im­ages of the late Mex­i­can painter and Marx­ist, Frida Kahlo. She was mar­ried to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary artist Diego Rivera and fa­mously had an af­fair with the founder of the Red Army, Leon Trot­sky, shortly before he was mur­dered by an agent of Stalin with an ice-pick.

Was the Prime Min­is­ter sug­gest­ing that she was to be seen, in some way, as a fem­i­nist icon, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary even? Kahlo was dis­abled as a re­sult of a tram ac­ci­dent in her youth, so was Theresa May telling us she had deep psy­cho­log­i­cal scars? Was she sug­gest­ing, even, that she was in dan­ger of be­ing de­stroyed by her po­lit­i­cal ri­vals? Well, she is now. What­ever they say in public, there is a large num­ber of se­nior Tories who would dearly wish for a metaphor­i­cal ice-pick to de­scend. As Grant Shapps, the for­mer party chair­man, put it: they can’t just bury their heads in the sand.

Po­lit­i­cal lead­ers owe their cit­i­zens one re­spon­si­bil­ity above all: that they do not make them­selves and their coun­try look ridicu­lous. Brexit Tories love Sec­ond World War analo­gies, so just imag­ine if Win­ston Churchill had made a speech like May’s af­ter Dunkirk? But ridicu­lous or not, Theresa May is go­ing nowhere, and that leaves Bri­tain and Scot­land in a se­ri­ous predica­ment. These im­ages of the PM get­ting her P45 (lit­er­ally) have been blasted across Europe by a me­dia which was al­ready highly crit­i­cal of the Bri­tish Gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach to ne­go­ti­a­tions over Ar­ti­cle 50.

Talks with the EU ne­go­tia­tor Michel Barnier were go­ing nowhere any­way – the cough­ing speech can only fur­ther weaken Bri­tain’s po­si­tion. A lame duck Prime Min­is­ter, who is a pris­oner of North­ern Ire­land loy­al­ists, has zero author­ity in the coun­try and no ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment, is in no po­si­tion to set terms let alone drive a hard bar­gain. Yet, Bri­tain’s de­par­ture is locked in and will hap­pen in lit­tle over 18 months. Ac­tu­ally, the Ar­ti­cle 50 ne­go­ti­a­tions must be con­cluded by the au­tumn of

Po­lit­i­cal lead­ers owe their cit­i­zens one re­spon­si­bil­ity above all: that they do not make them­selves and their coun­try look ridicu­lous

next year in or­der for the terms to be agreed by the re­main­ing 27 coun­tries of the EU. There isn’t a cat in hell’s chance of that now.

Theresa May is fin­ished po­lit­i­cally – of that there is lit­tle doubt. But the prob­lem for the Con­ser­va­tives and the coun­try is that there is no ob­vi­ous al­ter­na­tive. In their an­guish, Tory MPs and com­men­ta­tors are wish­ing that May could some­how be ex­changed in a trans­fer deal with their top Scot­tish striker, Ruth David­son. But this is pure fan­tasy. There is no con­ceiv­able way that the Scot­tish Tory leader could be in­stalled, quick time, in Num­ber 10. Of course, a safe seat could be found for her in Eng­land, and in the­ory she could even be in­stalled as Tory leader before win­ning it, as Alec Dou­glas-Home was in 1963. There might have to be some rule change to al­low the Scot­tish leader to stand as UK leader, but that is a tech­ni­cal­ity.

How­ever, it sim­ply is not go­ing to hap­pen. Ruth David­son has re­peat­edly said she doesn’t want the job, and has her sights set firmly on be­com­ing First Min­is­ter in Scot­land. If she were to sud­denly up and run to an English con­stituency in or­der to be pro­pelled into Down­ing Street at 38, she would de­stroy her cred­i­bil­ity and ruin the Tory party in Scot­land. Re­mem­ber, with­out those 12 ex­tra Scot­tish Tory MPs, Theresa May would have lost the 2017 snap elec­tion.

More­over, while the party hi­er­ar­chy and the right-wing press adore David­son, it’s not en­tirely clear that the Tory mem­ber­ship in Eng­land would wel­come a Scot­tish les­bian kick-boxer (as she is in­vari­ably de­scribed) as their leader and prime min­is­ter. The av­er­age Tory mem­ber is over 65 and it is not clear that they, or the Tory house or­gan, the Daily Mail, have fully come to terms with the age of sex­ual di­ver­sity. A con­trived at­tempt to bend the rules and rail­road the Con­ser­va­tive Party into ac­cept­ing her would as­suredly lead to a lead­er­ship con­test. This would pitch the real dar­ling of the Tory Party (and much of the Tory press) into con­tention: Boris John­son.

Many Tory MPs be­lieve the egre­gious For­eign Sec­re­tary – who last week said the Libyan city of Sirte could be the next Dubai “once they cleared the dead bod­ies away” – would be worse than Theresa May. They’re prob­a­bly right. The Ki­pling-quot­ing, neo-im­per­lial­ist – with his yearn­ing for the “Bri­tish lion to roar again” – would only ig­nite some goofy war with Brussels. The des­per­ate at­tempts by min­is­ters to shore up May’s lead­er­ship lead­er­ship last week – “wasn’t she SO brave and stead­fast” – was largely mo­ti­vated by a de­sire to keep Boris from tak­ing the crown. But with every week, he seems to creep nearer and nearer.

The First Min­is­ter, Nicola Stur­geon, couldn’t re­sist a dig at her op­po­site num­ber in Down­ing Street. She com­pared May’s speech to Fawlty Tow­ers, not least be­cause of the er­ratic let­ter­ing of her con­fer­ence slo­gan. It is some­how re­as­sur­ing that in the age of dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy the Tories still use sticky-backed plas­tic on their stage sets. You sim­ply can’t imag­ine Stur­geon ever de­liv­er­ing a speech as dis­as­trous as the PM’s – how­ever bad her throat. Nor would the First Min­is­ter, if handed a fake P45, have meekly ac­cepted it, thus giv­ing the press the photo-op­por­tu­nity of a life­time. That the two most pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal personalities in UK pol­i­tics right now – Stur­geon and David­son – are Scot­tish MSPs must be some kind of trib­ute to de­vo­lu­tion.

There is lit­tle love lost be­tween Stur­geon and May, not least be­cause of the lat­ter’s re­fusal to con­tinue with sum­mit talks about Scot­land’s future in Europe af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment’s white pa­per in De­cem­ber. The First Min­is­ter blames May for her own dis­as­trous de­ci­sion to call an in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum – and then un­call it. Though crit­ics will say it was Stur­geon’s fail­ure to lis­ten to the scun­nered vot­ers of Scot­land that caused that un­forced er­ror.

The mis­for­tunes of May will fea­ture promi­nently in speeches at the SNP con­fer­ence this week: ex­pect much ex­ag­ger­ated cough­ing. The de­te­ri­o­rat­ing sit­u­a­tion in Barcelona as the Span­ish gov­ern­ment tries to evoke mem­o­ries of Franco by sup­press­ing meet­ings of the Cata­lan par­lia­ment will also fig­ure. Just as well be­cause Stur­geon doesn’t want to talk about the stalled in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum here. Her du­ti­ful troops, many of whom are deeply dis­ap­pointed, will no doubt oblige her by keep­ing their traps shut in public, while de­bat­ing tail-dock­ing pup­pies.

The pri­or­ity for the SNP is to guard against the threat from Cor­byn Labour, which ex­plains the re­cent (ef­fec­tive) ban on frack­ing and the de­ci­sion to shelve the cut in Air Pas­sen­ger Duty. The First Min­is­ter’s re­cent Pro­gramme for Gov­ern­ment, which opened a de­bate on rais­ing in­come taxes in Scot­land, will also be used to fo­cus minds away from in­de­pen­dence. The SNP is only too aware of how many of the for­mer Yes ac­tivists are at­tracted by Cor­byn’s al­lot­ment so­cial­ism. Though ac­tu­ally trans­lat­ing that into sup­port for the de­based brand of Scot­tish Labour is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. Cor­byn doesn’t travel well, and he has a tin ear for the con­sti­tu­tion, so the SNP vote is safe for now.

But with Cata­lan se­ces­sion hap­pen­ing in real time over this week­end, it will be hard to stop the SNP faith­ful won­der­ing just what has hap­pened to the in­de­pen­dence project in Scot­land. Surely, they’ll say, they can’t let the dream die in Scot­land while it is colour­ing the streets of Barcelona. What can she say to re­as­sure them? Only that, as May put it, “now is not the time”.

Pho­to­graph: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May fell vic­tim to a prankster dur­ing her key­note speech to the Tory Party con­fer­ence

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