Get ped­alling Theresa, or young Tories will have you on your bike

Boris has crashed out of the race but . . .

The Mail on Sunday - - Comment -

THE atomic bomb has det­o­nated. Last month, I wrote that one of Theresa May’s Cab­i­net could ‘go nu­clear’. ‘It wil l t ake onl y one mo­ment of mad­ness – a re­ac­tion to a sin­gle mis­judged brief­ing or poorly cal­i­brated ne­go­ti­at­ing stance – to spark a con­fla­gra­tion that will con­sume her and her Govern­ment,’ I warned, adding: ‘From the per­spec­tive of sev­eral of those within her Cab­i­net, a pre- emp­tive strike is the best way to se­cure de­ci­sive ad­van­tage in a fu­ture lead­er­ship con­test.’

It has come as lit­tle sur­prise that it is Boris John­son who has pressed the big red but­ton – by us­ing a newspaper ar­ti­cle to launch a hardBrexit broad­side and ap­par­ently bid for the Tory lead­er­ship.

‘I love Boris but he’s al­ways had ter­ri­ble judg­ment,’ a friend ad­mits. ‘ Be­ing For­eign Sec­re­tary has shown up all his weak­ness. Iron­i­cally, he’d prob­a­bly be a much bet­ter Prime Min­is­ter, where he can act as chair­man of the board.’

It’s now un­likely he will ever be tested in that role.

We’ve seen many mis­guided lead­er­ship bids this year. But John­son’s de­ci­sion to plunge the knife into his own Prime Min­is­ter as she sat in a Co­bra meet­ing deal­ing with a ma­jor ter­ror­ist at­tack is a stag­ger­ing act of po­lit­i­cal self-im­mo­la­tion.

‘ On the day of a ter­ror at­tack where Bri­tons were maimed, just hours af­ter the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on ser­vice,’ tweeted Ruth David­son.

John­son did think about stay­ing his hand. In the wake of Friday’s Par­sons Green at­tack, po­lit­i­cal ed­i­tors re­ceived calls en­quir­ing whether there would still be space for Brexit cov­er­age. In the end, when it be­came clear there were no fa­tal­i­ties, he de­cided to pro­ceed.

Stag­ger­ingly, al­lies of John­son in­sist his in­ter­ven­tion was meant to as­sist Mrs May. They say he is wor­ried her ma­jor Brexit speech next week risks cross­ing a ‘red line’ by sign­ing Bri­tain up to tens of bil­lions of pounds of ‘repa­ra­tions’ as the price of with­drawal. ‘Boris can’t stom­ach that,’ an ally told me.

The feel­ing of nau­sea is repli­cated in Down­ing Street. No 10 in­sid­ers tell me they knew John­son was un­happy at be­ing side­lined from Brexit and were ne­go­ti­at­ing for a speech from him on the is­sue. But they be­lieved they’d reached agree­ment for his in­ter­ven­tion to come af­ter the Prime Min­is­ter’s ad­dress in Florence this Friday and were stunned when John­son’s speech ap­peared in the form of an ar­ti­cle in the Daily Tele­graph.

‘ Yes, Boris cleared the ar­ti­cle with us – just a few min­utes be­fore it was printed,’ a No 10 in­sider said caus­ti­cally. The ma­jor ques­tion now is the scale of the con­tam­i­na­tion from the det­o­na­tion of Blond Boy. One im­me­di­ate dan­ger is a chain re­ac­tion, with other Cab­i­net Min­is­ters de­cid­ing to make their own ‘help­ful in­ter­ven­tions’. Down­ing Street will be closely mon­i­tor­ing hard­core Euroscep­tics like Liam Fox, Priti Pa­tel and David Davis, though al­lies of Davis tell me he re­mains loyal to May.

What is clear is it will set off a fev­er­ish new round of lead­er­ship spec­u­la­tion just as the Tory Party gath­ers for its Elec­tion post mortem in Manch­ester. And that in turn could take the de­bate over the May suc­ces­sion in some in­ter­est­ing and un­ex­pected di­rec­tions.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been talk­ing to mem­bers of the Pelo­ton. They are a group of young, am­bi­tious Con­ser­va­tives who be­lieve the time has come to take their destiny in their own hands.

‘In cy­cle rac­ing, you can’t just charge off on your own,’ a Tory back­bencher ex­plained. ‘You wear your­self out. You have to work to­gether. One rider takes on the work­load. Then they drop back and some­one else takes the lead. That’s how we’re go­ing to op­er­ate. Like a pelo­ton.’ Mem­bers of the Pelo­ton are drawn mainly from the 2015 and 2017 in­takes. Few are house­hold names. Nigel Hud­dle­ston. Nus- rat Ghani. Rachel Ma­clean. Bim Afo­lami. Vicky Ford. Johnny Mercer. But they are the fu­ture now. And there’s a grow­ing feel­ing in Tory ranks that if the Govern­ment is to sur­vive, the fu­ture can’t wait.

‘ We’re fac­ing two ma­jor chal­lenges,’ a Min­is­ter told me. ‘One is how to sur­vive the day-to-day trench war­fare. And to be fair, No 10 are do­ing a half-de­cent job there. But the other is how to man­age the process of re­newal. And Theresa just isn’t the per­son to de­liver that.’

The Pelo­ton are a di­verse group. They are a long way from a set­tled agenda. But they have a series of broad guid­ing prin­ci­ples. One is a healthy scep­ti­cism to­wards their el­ders. One MP said: ‘We were told, “Don’t worry, the grown-ups are in charge now.” Well, how did the grown-ups do?’

A sec­ond is a de­ter­mi­na­tion to avoid tread­ing on the po­lit­i­cal thirdrail of Brexit. They are mostly Re­main­ers or Brexit prag­ma­tists. But they are des­per­ate to avoid be­ing ham­strung by the is­sue they be­lieve is weigh­ing down their ad­min­is­tra­tion. ‘ We can’t keep be­ing de­fined by Brexit,’ one Min­is­ter ex­plained. ‘We need a new Cab­i­net where peo­ple aren’t pi­geon­holed as Re­main­ers or Leavers.’

A third, and per­haps most im­por­tant, rule is that the Pelo­ton can­not be a ve­hi­cle for in­di­vid­ual lead­er­ship am­bi­tion. ‘What you’ll see is peo­ple act­ing col­lec­tively,’ one MP pre­dicted. ‘ Chris Philp will float some rad­i­cal ideas about hous­ing. James Clev­erly will talk about re­defin­ing cap­i­tal­ism. Then Re­becca Pow will set out new think­ing on the en­vi­ron­ment.’

Any­one ‘do­ing a Boris’ and de­vi­at­ing from this com­mu­nal ethos will be shunned. Last week, Tom Tu­gend­hat – newly elected chair of the For­eign Af­fairs Se­lect Com­mit­tee and one of the Pelo­ton’s bright­est stars – an­gered col­leagues by launch­ing what was seen as a self­ag­gran­dis­ing at­tack on the Govern­ment’s Hur­ri­cane Irma re­sponse. ‘It was im­ma­ture and self-in­dul­gent,’ one for­mer ally chided. Tu­gend­hat’s friends ac­knowl­edge his er­ror and say he will be keep­ing a lower pro­file over the con­fer­ence sea­son.

The Pelo­ton have also reached out to pro­gres­sively minded mem­bers of t he Cameron/ Os­borne era, such as Cameron’s par­lia­men­tary pri­vate sec­re­tary Sam Gy­imah, Os­borne ally Matt Han­cock and for­mer Work and Pen­sions Min­is­ter Stephen Crabb. ‘They’re our bridges to a time when we knew how to win seats and elec­tions,’ one MP said.

Ac­cord­ing to Down­ing Street in­sid­ers, Theresa May is aware of the need to back the new gen­er­a­tion. But the young Turks are im­pa­tient. ‘It will be a defin­ing mo­ment,’ one told me. ‘Is she go­ing to make some se­ri­ous Cab­i­net ap­point­ments? Or is she go­ing to do an Alan Hansen and say, “You don’t win any­thing with kids”?’

Mrs May’s premier­ship has been ham­strung by her in­stinc­tive cau­tion. But the shock­wave from Boris John­son’s det­o­na­tion should give her the im­pe­tus to be bold.

The Pelo­ton is form­ing. May should ride with them. If she doesn’t, like Boris, she may soon find her­self ped­alling for­lornly in its wake.

He plunged in the knife as PM dealt with a ter­ror at­tack The Tory Pelo­ton be­lieve the time is right to grasp destiny

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