The PM should capitalise on her grassroots support and focus on standing up to EU not British bullies
Over the past two weeks I have been asked many times: “Can Theresa May survive as Prime Minister?” My answer is clear: “She can and she must.” Her task is to hold the Conservative Party together – a problem that has beset most of her predecessors. Peel and Balfour failed; Baldwin and Macmillan succeeded. She has to succeed because the stakes are now very much higher and amount to the destiny of our nation.
Mrs May’s leadership has been questioned ever since the last election. Last week one of my friends said she will be out by Christmas, but when I offered him generous odds of 5-1 he wouldn’t even bet a penny, let alone £100, because deep down he recognised that she is a survivor. This year her expected demise has kept political journalists in work, for they have a talent for turning a problem into a crisis – just look at the headlines over the past month: Could she make a coalition work? Could she get the Queen’s Speech and Article 50 through? Could she last to the end of the July session? Or the Party Conference?
The frenzy was intense again last week – about one Cabinet minister who did something foolish 15 years ago and another who decided to run her own foreign policy without anyone’s knowledge or approval. Mrs May saw both and rightly sacked them – that is not a sign of weakness.
In the legislation and negotiations that lie ahead, the Brexiteers will not get all that they want in one shot, but nor will the Remainers. Rather, there will be a series of compromises, which will create moments of tension. But is there anyone in the Cabinet that could handle this situation better than Mrs May? When the British public look at the potential rival leaders the polls show that they soon come to the conclusion “None of the Above”.
The Prime Minister should take a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher’s book. She created a number of very talented Ministers of State – William Hague, Michael Howard, John Major, Norman Lamont, Cecil Parkinson, Chris Patten, Malcolm Rifkind, Norman Tebbit, and John Wakeham. They all got the chance to grow and to emerge as senior figures and possible successors.
Today there is a wealth of talent on the Conservative backbenches from the past two elections and Mrs May should offer some of them ministerial jobs where they will have the opportunity to become better-known personalities. Given four years on the front benches, many will do just that.
By contrast, a leadership election would be madness. I was the Party Chairman during the contest that ousted Mrs Thatcher and I saw at first-hand how bitter it was, with the candidates – and more often their ardent supporters – slanging each other off for weeks on end. As Chairman I contacted all the local Conservative Associations in the country and found that, unlike many Tory MPS in the House, 75 per cent were loyal to Margaret. A similar divide is opening now.
Our peril then reminded me of a time when we were in an even greater crisis than we are now – Suez, which saw national humiliation, ministers resigning, and a prime minister going. Things looked so bad that Brian Walden, then Oxford University Labour Chairman, bet me that the Tories would never hold office again in the 20th century.
But I won that bet. We came back – and quickly. Macmillan did it by spending the first year of his premiership visiting Conservatives in the country, restoring confidence, and winning friends. I think Mrs May should do the same. One current myth is that the Conservative Party has disappeared at the local level – this is simply not the case. I subscribe to two local Conservative Associations and am inundated with their events, newsletters, campaigns and appeals. At that level, the Prime Minister would find much Tory support and a respect for her openness and decency. Above all, they know that she will not let them down. She would also find that local party supporters are wary and often puzzled by the feverishness of Westminster politics.
The bitterness of the 1990 leadership contest, however, did lead to us being out of power for a very long time. So every Tory MP should fix their eyes upon the general election of 2022 and ensure it does not come earlier. Too many MPS, fearing that their cause may be watered down or even lost, prophesy doom – that could become self-fulfilling. It should be inconceivable for the Prime Minister to be openly vilified by her own side.
So much of their quibbling is wrong. I saw one ex-minister criticising the Prime Minister for dragging out the Priti Patel crisis by requiring the minister to return to the UK to be sacked, asking why she couldn’t be sacked over the phone. The simple reason is that when a Prime Minister sacks a Cabinet colleague it is done face-to-face.
Opportunist critics should remember that today there is a possibility of a real Socialist government with all the trappings of failure: nationalisation, higher taxation, big government, roaring inflation, weaker defence and an economy trickling downhill. But they should also remember that this is by no means a certainty. The fight, if anything, is going the Conservatives’ way. Tony Blair, who knows how to win elections, says Labour should be 15-20 points ahead in the polls by now. The fact they are not shows that there are many voters in the country who are not committed to the cause of Jeremy Corbyn, and when they have learnt more about it and realise they could be threatened by it, they will be looking for an alternative to vote for. This is a huge opportunity for the Conservative Party.
The Prime Minister has already shown that she can shoulder a lot of vituperation, belittling and writingoff. She has also shown a determined, indeed dogged, and upright resolution. As a vicar’s daughter she puts her sense of duty before her own peace of mind. The public recognise that, and as such she is the party’s most popular possible leader. The public has also come to realise that Europe is bullying us and that Mrs May is well-able to stand up to bullies. The public, as usual, is right. So stick at it Theresa.