Charles Moore

As Theresa May con­tin­ues merely to sur­vive, po­ten­tial Tory lead­ers may be mak­ing their way for­ward

The Daily Telegraph - - Front page - CHARLES MOORE

As we all re­mem­ber, Mrs May promised us “strong and sta­ble lead­er­ship”. It was not to be. Her post-elec­tion weak­ness is ob­vi­ous, and although she has made no egre­gious new mis­takes, she seems quite un­able to shift her tone or raise our spir­its.

What we have had for some months now started to look like a strange new genre – weak and sta­ble lead­er­ship. The bulk of the broad­cast and posh me­dia, be­ing pro-re­main, have failed to make clear that, in Bri­tish par­lia­men­tary terms, Brexit is go­ing steadily for­ward. Thanks to the in­spired in­ter­ven­tion of Gina Miller’s court case – which in­tended the op­po­site ef­fect – Par­lia­ment voted a long time ago to trig­ger Ar­ti­cle 50. This means that, by law, we shall leave the EU on March 30 2019.

This week, Par­lia­ment passed by 36 votes the sec­ond Read­ing of the EU With­drawal Bill. There was not a sin­gle Con­ser­va­tive rebel on that vote – or on the Queen’s Speech – and there were 21 Labour MPS who ei­ther voted with the Gov­ern­ment or ab­stained. There could still be sev­eral slips ’twixt cup and lip – an am­bush in the Com­mons, a sur­feit of Re­mainer lawyers in the Lords – but the chances of re­vers­ing the process di­min­ish by the day. The pub­lic mood also trav­els in the Leave di­rec­tion. “Get on with it” is what most peo­ple say, with vary­ing de­grees of en­thu­si­asm.

This helps ex­plain why there has been, up till now, no lead­er­ship chal­lenge to Mrs May. Pro-leave Con­ser­va­tive MPS who have al­ways had quite a low opinion of her, even in her few months of pre-elec­tion glory, nev­er­the­less feel that she is on track, whether she likes it or not. Re­main sup­port­ing ones fear they have no can­di­date who can win a party lead­er­ship con­test. They there­fore sulk, but bear it. Nei­ther camp wants an­other gen­eral elec­tion. Mrs May there­fore sur­vives.

But there re­mains wide­spread un­ease about what might hap­pen in the ne­go­ti­a­tions, and the con­se­quent need for vis­i­ble lead­er­ship to steady nerves and point the way through. In her Lan­caster House speech in Jan­uary, Mrs May set out crisply what she in­tended; but that was be­fore the elec­tion. Af­ter its near-dis­as­trous re­sult, a sec­ond such oc­ca­sion is needed. This is pre­sum­ably why she hit upon Florence as the back­drop for her big speech next week – her Re­nais­sance mo­ment be­fore the party con­fer­ence next month.

It was never go­ing to be as ex­cit­ing as Dante first clap­ping eyes on Beatrice on the banks of the Arno, but from to­day any pos­si­ble éclat is eclipsed – by Boris. In this morn­ing’s pa­per, the For­eign Sec­re­tary of­fers a punchy ar­ti­cle about the whole Euro­pean sit­u­a­tion. It reads more like a speech. It would have been bet­ter for the Prime Min­is­ter if she had en­cour­aged him to de­liver it as one, with her at­ten­tive su­per­vi­sion but warm ap­proval. In­stead, though it con­tra­dicts no pol­icy, it feels like a re­proach for what she has not done.

As a po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion at this mo­ment, the piece is mas­terly. Boris cuts the Gor­dian knot about leav­ing or stay­ing: we can’t be “52 per cent out and 48 per cent in”. The ar­ti­cle is full of vim, op­ti­mism and ge­nial pa­tri­o­tism about Bri­tain post-brexit. It cheers the troops by at­tack­ing Labour (Mr Cor­byn has “a re­mark­able beardy abil­ity to speak out of both sides of his mouth”). It breaks out of the cy­cle of fear which held us cap­tive in the EU for so long even though we could see that it was not, de­spite For­eign Of­fice protes­ta­tions, “go­ing our way”. Mrs May seems a prisoner of fear her­self.

In­stead, Boris’s ar­ti­cle of­fers an at­trac­tive pic­ture of Bri­tain’s global fu­ture – its tech­nolo­gies, its tax free­dom, its great uni­ver­si­ties, its bet­ter use of our for­mer EU con­tri­bu­tion, its chance to im­prove pro­duc­tiv­ity, and an im­prob­a­ble flight of fancy about how the NHS could lead the world in gene ther­apy. Even its el­e­ments of Borisian tosh make one more cheer­ful.

The piece is also art­ful. Note the lit­tle swipes at pos­si­ble op­po­nents

– the sug­ges­tion, for ex­am­ple, that Philip Ham­mond’s Trea­sury has “not so far sought to pun­ish the Bri­tish peo­ple with an emer­gency Bud­get” (the dig is ob­vi­ously anti-ge­orge Os­borne, but the less ob­vi­ous an­ti­ham­mond one lies in the “so far”). Note Boris’s po­si­tion­ing of him­self in the great nar­ra­tive of the long Euro­pean war.

“I was there,” he tells us, when the Bri­tish “hard ecu” was stran­gled; “I was there” when Mar­garet Thatcher was am­bushed at the Rome sum­mit in 1990. He re­mem­bers the hu­mil­i­a­tions when it was so of­ten said in Brus­sels that “Bri­tain protests – but in the end she al­ways signs up.” He sounds like a dec­o­rated vet­eran telling tales of his old bat­tles. Ac­tu­ally he was a jour­nal­ist (for this pa­per). It still works, though. He saw it all: Mrs May didn’t.

Boris’s words are so writ­ten that the Prime Min­is­ter can­not sack him, dis­ci­pline him or prob­a­bly even have him de­nounced be­hind the hand. He does not tres­pass, ex­cept sup­port­ively, on any sen­si­tive ques­tion in the ne­go­ti­a­tions which be­long to David Davis, the Brexit Sec­re­tary, (an­other pos­si­ble lead­er­ship con­tender). He ar­gues strongly, for ex­am­ple, for our rights in the mat­ter which ob­sesses the EU above all – the €14bil­lion (£12.3bil­lion) we pay in each year. How can Mrs May at­tack him for as­sert­ing that? Yet he may be cir­cum­scrib­ing her room for po­lit­i­cal ma­noeu­vre by do­ing so.

This, then, is Boris’s lead­er­ship bid, couched in such a way that he need not un­say any­thing if it goes wrong.

Will it work? His tim­ing is the op­po­site of that which he chose in the ref­er­en­dum, when his in­de­ci­sion was all but fi­nal, and he barely had time to cam­paign. He was the big­gest beast to board the Leave ark, but also the last. This may have dam­aged his prospects in the lead­er­ship con­test af­ter the re­sult. This time, he is get­ting in first, when ev­ery­one was plan­ning to take the party con­fer­ence next month qui­etly. Now Boris, who is far bet­ter with con­fer­ence au­di­ences than any other mem­ber of the Cab­i­net, is mak­ing the weather.

It is cer­tain that Boris will not en­dear him­self to large num­bers of par­lia­men­tary col­leagues by what he has just done. Most of them are sus­pi­cious or jeal­ous of him. Many will not wel­come such drama at this tricky time.

His in­ter­ven­tion will also in­cite his ri­vals to en­ter the fray, though it is hard to imag­ine what any of them could say to trump him. Per­haps their best bet will be to present them­selves as safe pairs of hands, im­ply­ing that Boris is self­ish and flaky. I also no­tice that the large new gen­er­a­tion of Tory MPS from the 2015 and 2017 in­takes is mov­ing for­ward fast, and is clearly unim­pressed by their el­ders and sup­posed bet­ters in the Cab­i­net. A lit­tle-known, much younger can­di­date might ap­pear.

As ever, the crav­ings of the Con­ser­va­tive Party need to be distin­guished from those of the coun­try.

Would it re­ally help, at this crit­i­cal junc­ture, to place our fu­ture in Boris’s hands? Would it be a case of the blond lead­ing the blind? Would it force an­other elec­tion, thus risk­ing Prime Min­is­ter Cor­byn?

On the other hand, Boris would not be writ­ing as he is if there were not a vac­uum to fill. That vac­uum is lo­cated in 10 Down­ing Street. We are liv­ing through a very strange pas­sage in our is­land story.

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