Tories know they need a new leader, but …

In the af­ter­math of a dis­as­trous party con­fer­ence, some MPs be­lieve power must shift to a new gen­er­a­tion to re­ju­ve­nate the party. Toby Helm and Michael Sav­age re­port

The Observer - - FRONT PAGE -

As Theresa May coughed and splut­tered through her ill-fated party con­fer­ence speech on Wed­nes­day the home sec­re­tary, Am­ber Rudd, tried to ride to her res­cue. Clearly aware that cough sweets and glasses of wa­ter were fail­ing to do the trick, Rudd was des­per­ate to buy the prime min­is­ter some breath­ing space. “Give her time,” she told the chan­cel­lor Philip Ham­mond and for­eign sec­re­tary Boris John­son as she urged the cabi­net’s front row to its feet for an­other lengthy stand­ing ova­tion.

While there was sym­pa­thy in abun­dance for the prime min­is­ter in the hall, it had taken a terrible co­in­ci­dence of dis­as­ters – the cough, a prankster and a dis­in­te­grat­ing stage set – to stir such gen­er­ous feel­ings. The Tories had gath­ered in Manch­ester des­per­ately de­pressed, deeply di­vided, an­gry at May and in smaller num­bers than nor­mal. “It is a ghost con­fer­ence,” said one se­nior MP on the open­ing day. “I have never known such a haunted feel about the place and such a lack of dis­ci­pline.”

In the con­fer­ence bars and cafes, ministers, MPs and del­e­gates spent the week de­bat­ing whether their leader should be al­lowed to carry on. Few made any ef­fort to de­fend May. Many were still fum­ing about the snap gen­eral elec­tion she took them into with dis­as­trous con­se­quences, and all were deeply wor­ried about the prospect of a Jeremy Cor­byn gov­ern­ment. Most had no en­thu­si­asm for a John­son suc­ces­sion – but ever fewer thought the prime min­is­ter could sur­vive for long. “We are roy­ally screwed and need a to­tal, com­plete and ut­ter re­vamp,” said one se­nior MP. “Our prob­lem is that to re­vamp you need a new leader, but we have no idea how we get one with­out caus­ing com­plete may­hem and splitting the party even more. That’s the is­sue in a nut­shell.” Both sides of the party’s Brexit di­vide fear that a lead­er­ship con­test could de­liver a suc­ces­sor of the wrong Brexit per­sua­sion. The fear of Cor­byn is ev­ery­where.

As the Ob­server re­ports to­day, among a grow­ing num­ber of MPs and party donors there is a sense that the min­i­mum re­quired is a reshuf­fle giv­ing cabi­net power and in­flu­ence to a younger gen­er­a­tion. If the party can­not at the mo­ment re­gain its lost mo­men­tum, at least it could lit­er­ally re­ju­ve­nate.

Cabi­net ministers off­loaded their frus­tra­tions in pri­vate at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. John­son was the ob­ject of much vit­riol for so brazenly po­si­tion­ing for the lead­er­ship, but crit­i­cism of May was just as vis­ceral. A for­mer min­is­ter said the party’s elec­tion man­i­festo of­fer­ing on so­cial care had read “like it had been writ­ten by Alan B’Stard”. An­other ex-min­is­ter said it was im­pos­si­ble to rally en­thu­si­as­ti­cally be­hind the prime min­is­ter, partly be­cause peo­ple still felt so re­sent­ful at the way she and her ad­vis­ers had treated them when she was all-pow­er­ful. One min­is­ter said: “It is dif­fi­cult just to for­give and for­get all that and be all sweet­ness and light.” The past five months had also left huge ques­tions about May’s judg­ment. “It is just not sus­tain­able for us to re­new un­der someone who led us into this mess,” said an­other min­is­ter.

This was the back­drop of blood­let­ting against which May be­gan her speech on Wed­nes­day – one which was sup­posed to res­cue her premier­ship. For weeks she and her ad­vis­ers had been fine-tun­ing the con­tent, in the hope that it would al­low her to sol­dier on at least un­til af­ter Brexit. They knew that party ac­tivists wanted to hear a full apol­ogy for the elec­tion and the way it back­fired. On that she gave them what they wanted – a full mea culpa. They also knew that with Cor­byn’s Labour at­tract­ing more and more youth­ful sup­port she had to at least be­gin to show the Tories cared about a sec­tion of the elec­torate they had all but lost. An­nounce­ments on build­ing more houses and tu­ition fees cost­ing many bil­lions of pounds were hur­riedly put to­gether.

But even these pol­icy of­fer­ings ap­peared to some Tories as too re­ac­tive, as sig­nals of her lack of ide­o­log­i­cal back­bone and a will­ing­ness to throw over­board Con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­ples which many in the party hold dear. Writ­ing on Con­ser­va­tiveHome, the web­site’s edi­tor, Paul Good­man, a for­mer MP, said: “The key prob­lem with the speech was that for all its con­tent it lacked clar­ity – and so failed to point a co­her­ent way ahead ei­ther for the Con­ser­va­tives or, es­pe­cially, for May her­self. You can­not adapt to the Cor­byn chal­lenge by mak­ing a stir­ring de­fence of free mar­kets … and then carry on as usual by stress­ing en­ergy price caps and more coun­cil houses.” Some donors were an­noyed at the con­tent on coun­cil hous­ing and en­ergy caps, which they re­garded as “Labourlite” and not Con­ser­va­tive.

As the wave of post-speech sym­pa­thy sub­sided it was not long be­fore the plot­ting be­gan and small groups of MPs be­gan tak­ing sound­ings about how to re­place her. It was those sound­ings that are said to have alerted the whips and led to the out­ing of the ring­leader, Grant Shapps. Yes­ter­day Charles Walker, a mem­ber of the ex­ec­u­tive of the 1922 Com­mit­tee and a May loy­al­ist, said that af­ter be­ing be­set by so much bad luck through­out the week, the fact that it was Shapps (an MP he sug­gested had pre­cious lit­tle cred­i­bil­ity among his peers) who was iden­ti­fied as the plot­ter-in-chief showed, per­haps, that May’s luck had turned. Af­ter Rudd at­tempted to calm things with a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle urg­ing loy­alty on Fri­day, John­son used the Tory MPs’ What­sApp group to show his sup­port. “Folks I am away but just read all this,” he wrote. “See Am­ber piece this am. She is right right right. We have JUST HAD AN ELEC­TION and peo­ple are fed up with all this malarkey. Get be­hind the PM. Or­di­nary pun­ters I have spo­ken to thought her speech was good and any­one can have a cold. Cir­cle the wag­ons turn the fire on Cor­byn and talk about noth­ing ex­cept our great poli­cies and what we can do for the coun­try.”

While the plot to ditch May seemed to run out of steam be­fore it re­ally gained mo­men­tum, wise heads said that the whole con­fer­ence ex­pe­ri­ence had left a deep wound on the prime min­is­ter. May was far from home and dry. This week­end there are plenty of MPs who still feel she should fall on her sword. An­other ex-min­is­ter re­marked yes­ter­day: “Re­ally, she needs to con­sider her po­si­tion. It’s look­ing ex­tremely bad for her. The cabi­net have ar­ranged their wag­ons around her, but what are they pro­tect­ing? I don’t think any­one thinks she will last to the end of the Brexit process.”

Those who still want to strike quickly be­lieve that if she is al­lowed to limp on into next year, they could be stuck with her into 2019, as it will be im­pos­si­ble to change leader as the cli­max to the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions ap­proaches. If she does go or if a con­test is forced, John­son and David Davis are seen as the most likely suc­ces­sors. Some of their sup­port­ers are urg­ing them to sort out the Tory suc­ces­sion be­tween them. “The best thing they could do is come to an ac­com­mo­da­tion,” said one.

As MPs are pre­par­ing to re­turn to West­min­ster af­ter the con­fer­ence sea­son break, the road ahead for May is lit­tered with po­lit­i­cal land­mines. Labour, sens­ing blood, stands ready to ex­ploit her weak­ness and the dis­unity of her gov­ern­ment. Brexit looms largest. EU of­fi­cials and diplo­mats are warn­ing that the chances of them mak­ing con­ces­sions or strik­ing deals in ne­go­ti­a­tions with someone they be­lieve may not be long for No 10 are not ex­actly in­creas­ing. The EU is turn­ing its at­ten­tion to the dis­tinct pos­si­bil­ity of hav­ing to ne­go­ti­ate with Cor­byn and Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer in­stead. Starmer said yes­ter­day that “the sin­gle big­gest threat to Bri­tain crash­ing out of the EU with no deal is now Tory in­fight­ing ”. He added: “If the prime min­is­ter is un­able – or un­will­ing – to show lead­er­ship on the most cru­cial is­sue of our gen­er­a­tion, then Labour will.”

This week the lat­est round of talks be­gins in Brus­sels. The prime min­is­ter, in her weak state, is un­likely to be able to of­fer more de­tails on the fi­nan­cial set­tle­ment that the UK may be pre­pared to make. John­son, Priti Pa­tel, Andrea Lead­som, Liam Fox and Michael Gove all have per­sonal red lines on the shape of Bri­tain’s EU re­la­tion­ship af­ter 2021. The de­tails of how a tran­si­tion pe­riod will work and what fol­lows have yet to be ham­mered out. Then there is the chan­cel­lor’s Novem­ber bud­get, in which he will have to find ways to pay for the bil­lions of pounds of ex­tra spend­ing an­nounced

‘We’re screwed and need a re­vamp – but it would cause may­hem and split the party even more. That’s the is­sue in a nut­shell ’ Se­nior Tory MP

on new poli­cies (stu­dent fees and hous­ing among them) in the past week.

Polling by Opinium for the Ob­server this week­end shows that the con­fer­ence sea­son, rather than help­ing the Tories and May, have dam­aged both, while Labour and Cor­byn have gained in cred­i­bil­ity. The Tories are now seen as more di­vided than Labour for the first time since be­fore Cor­byn be­came leader.

The prime min­is­ter sur­vived a terrible week thanks to a wave of sym­pa­thy from her party and the pub­lic and a failed coup at­tempt that her whips man­aged to turn to her ad­van­tage. But this week pol­i­tics re­sumes in the House of Com­mons with Labour on May’s case as never be­fore. Tories know she can­not af­ford an­other fail­ure. “We just have to try to get be­hind her at prime min­is­ter’s ques­tions [on Wed­nes­day],” said a mem­ber of the 1922 com­mit­tee ex­ec­u­tive. “But there are many prob­lems ahead and no one is pre­tend­ing it is go­ing to be easy. In fact quite the re­verse.”

Pho­to­graph by Joe Gid­dens/PA

Theresa May de­liv­er­ing her key­note speech at the Tory party con­fer­ence.

Am­ber Rudd’s ar­ti­cle call­ing for unity and loy­alty won back­ing from Boris John­son.

TOM TU­GEND­HAT Af­ter serv­ing in Iraq and Afghanistan, he en­tered par­lia­ment in 2015. The 44-year-old is al­ready chair­man of the for­eign af­fairs se­lect com­mit­tee and has tack­led Boris John­son over his idio­syn­cratic ap­proach to diplo­macy. Has se­cured cross-party sup­port, de­spite be­ing re­garded as an archre­mainer. DOMINIC RAAB Al­ready in gov­ern­ment as a jus­tice min­is­ter, Raab, 43, could emerge as the pro-Brexit can­di­date for the new gen­er­a­tion. Has al­ready made a rapid come­back af­ter be­ing sacked as a min­is­ter by May when she took power. Could win sup­port should John­son de­cide he is out of the run­ning. Al­ways thought­ful and in­de­pen­dent-minded as a back­bencher and could ap­peal to a largely pro-Brexit Tory mem­ber­ship. RISHI SUNAK The 37-year-old won Wil­liam Hague’s for­mer seat of Rich­mond, York­shire, in 2015. Backed leav­ing the EU, but not a prom­i­nent cam­paigner. Has al­ready fronted a Con­ser­va­tive film in which he claims it is the “true party of op­por­tu­nity”. Sunak is the son-in-law of bil­lion­aire NR Narayana Murthy, and worked as a hedge fund man­ager. KEMI BADE­NOCH Only elected this year, the 37-yearold im­pressed with her warm-up act for the PM’s speech, with MPs de­scrib­ing her as a breath of fresh air. “There are very few coun­tries in the world where you can go in one gen­er­a­tion from im­mi­grant to par­lia­men­tar­ian,” she said. “That is the Bri­tish dream.” Bri­tish-born but raised in Nige­ria, she re­turned to the UK aged 16 with a pass­port and £100. Could she win a seat on the front­bench?

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