What the PM’s political death means for Scotland
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”.
Prime Minister Theresa May fell victim to a prankster during her keynote speech to the Tory Party conference