Ken­neth Baker

The PM should cap­i­talise on her grass­roots sup­port and fo­cus on stand­ing up to EU not Bri­tish bul­lies

The Daily Telegraph - - Front page - ken­neth baker Lord Baker of Dork­ing was Chair­man of the Con­ser­va­tive Party 1989-90

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.

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