Want to stay, Mrs May? Just tell them ‘I’m going’
And get rid of Boris, of course
THERE was a moment when Theresa May’s enemies finally thought they had her cornered. ‘I’ve spoken to George [Osborne] about it,’ one coup leader told me confidently, ‘and his main piece of advice was to be patient. He was involved in the IDS plot and said it took a month after his conference speech before he was ousted. It’s a mistake to go unless you have a sense of inevitability.’
Unfortunately for the former Chancellor, the conspirators failed to take his advice.
Flushed out by the whips office, Grant Shapps took to the airwaves, and promptly cracked under questioning. Asked how many rebellious names he had garnered, he admitted to no more than 30. Which was the equivalent of Guy Fawkes striding up to James I’s courtiers and saying: ‘You might want to check out the House of Lords basement.’ At that moment, any chance of Shapps’s plot succeeding vanished.
For now, Mrs May is safe. Unless she decides she simply cannot take any further humiliation. Downing Street insiders who saw her immediately following her speech-from-hell angrily reject reports she broke down in tears. Entering the green room set aside for what had become a redundant celebratory team drink, they were met by a PM who was chastened, but stoical.
‘She smiled at us and shrugged, as if to say, “I’m sorry I let you down,” ’ one No 10 official said.
‘We all felt awful. It was us who had let her down.’
IF THE saying ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ were true, Mrs May would have morphed into the Incredible Hulk.
For a national figure who suffers from a combination of ‘red-light syndrome’ – an aversion to performing in front of the TV camera – a fear of public speaking and a significant health condition, the ordeal of Wednesday has few parallels. Watching from the side of the stage as her conference literally fell apart around her, the thing that struck me was not the political impact of the moment, but her own physical courage.
But, sadly, courage is not enough. I wrote that last week represented the Prime Minister’s opportunity to slap her party and bring it to its senses. It concluded with that party having to prop her up, then man- handle her back to the sanctuary of Downing Street.
Mrs May can go on, but this cannot go on. ‘She’s just continuing with the job’ is a nice sound-bite, but it is not a serious strategy for a politician whose authority has been eviscerated in such a pitiless way.
First, she must set a clear end-date to her premiership. The normal rule is that a pre-resignation renders any Prime Minister a lame duck. But without one she is a dead duck. As recent briefings have exposed, i t’s when her troops believe she really does intend to lead them into the next Election that they start losing their heads.
Plus, there’s a precedent. After the Curry House Coup of 2006, Tony Blair’s pre-resignation ended his party’s infighting, and ushered in a period of stability. A commitment to making the delivery of Brexit the final act of her career would neuter her critics and underline her con- ference message that public service remains her sole motivation.
Then she should sack Boris Johnson. The view in Downing Street is t hat l ast week represented ‘Peak Boris’ – his serial disloyalty destroying any chance of him mounting his own challenge. This is true, and it provides an opportunity to be exploited. By packing him off to spend more time with his Kipling, Mrs May would clear the way for a wide-ranging reshuffle. Or rather, the full-scale blood transfusion at the top of Government that is so desperately required.
OVER the past few days, the ‘Peloton’ – the pack of young MPs who represent the party’s future – have had the Prime Minister’s back. But their support is conditional on her sending the signal that she is preparing to pass on the baton. ‘She needs to bring the kids through, to see if they can hack it,’ said one junior Minister.
‘If she sticks with the old guard, people are just going to say, “What’s the point in all this?” ’
Finally, she must address the policy vacuum that is leading to her party’s slow-motion implosion.
There was frustration among Tory modernisers that her speech – or those elements that could be deciphered – failed to contain any fresh or radical initiatives. But this totally misses the point. Whatever Mrs May says cannot appear fresh or radical because Mrs May is the person saying it. Asking the Prime Minister to relaunch the Tory Party is like asking Des O’Connor to launch the latest iPhone. He might be a national treasure, but there is an unbridgeable disconnect between medium and message.
Conservative renewal must be outsourced. The Prime Minister should establish a policy commission independent of Downing Street that can begin laying the groundwork for the next Tory manifesto. It could tap into the network of centre-Right external think- tanks such as Bright Blue, The Social Market Foundation and the Centre for Policy Studies, and engage the party’s planetary brains such as David Willetts, George Freeman and Oliver Letwin. This in turn would leave the Prime Minister free to manage the country through the labyrinthine maze of the Brexit negotiations.
For some in the party, this is insufficient. They want her gone, and now. But as the events of the past 72 hours have shown, the fundamentals of their plight have not changed. There is no alternative candidate, no mechanism for her removal and no mainstream appetite for forcing her departure.
So it’s Mrs May who must make the first move. As we saw on Wednesday, her courage and resilience are formidable. She must now deploy them to commence her long goodbye.