Want to stay, Mrs May? Just tell them ‘I’m go­ing’

And get rid of Boris, of course

The Mail on Sunday - - Comment -

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.

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