Get pedalling Theresa, or young Tories will have you on your bike
Boris has crashed out of the race but . . .
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