In stormy wa­ters it’s time Theresa showed she’s the cap­tain of the ship

(and here’s the course she should plot)

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - Comment - FOR­MER No 10 DI­REC­TOR OF COM­MU­NI­CA­TIONS By CRAIG OLIVER

IT WAS never meant to be like this. The good ship Theresa May was launched into the choppy wa­ters of the post-Brexit ref­er­en­dum shock as the safest of safe ves­sels. Mod­est and un­spec­tac­u­lar – with the glitz re­stricted to Cap­tain May’s choice of fash­ion­able footwear – it was sup­posed to be able to deal with the stormi­est of wa­ters.

In fact, it has turned out to be what one Cabi­net Min­is­ter told me is ‘a very frag­ile boat’.

Af­ter the huge setback of the Elec­tion, with no ma­jor­ity and a re­vi­talised Labour Party, the logic among Tory MPs has been to tell ev­ery­one to shut up and stop rock­ing the boat.

They be­lieved the Prime Min­is­ter should be al­lowed to keep things afloat by ap­peas­ing any­one hint­ing at mutiny and warn­ing them their in­dis­ci­pline would only has­ten Jeremy Cor­byn’s ar­rival on the bridge.

Sadly, the events of the last two weeks have shown the lim­its of that strat­egy.

Al­low­ing ‘steady as she goes’ to be the pre­vail­ing value works when things look rel­a­tively sta­ble. They don’t any more.

Two Cabi­net Min­is­ters have gone. An­other, Damian Green, the de facto Deputy Prime Min­is­ter, awaits the ver­dict of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Many see Boris John­son’s er­rors over a Bri­tish ci­ti­zen im­pris­oned in Iran as an­other op­por­tu­nity for a scalp.

As a for­mer No10 Di­rec­tor of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, the real low point was read­ing a press re­lease de­signed to clar­ify the po­si­tion of Priti Pa­tel, the for­mer In­ter­na­tional Devel­op­ment Sec­re­tary.

In a com­pet­i­tive field, that doc­u­ment is­sued on Ms Pa­tel’s be­half wins the prize for the most lu­di­crous I have ever read. Its mes­sage amounted to: ‘When I told you the Foreign Sec­re­tary knew about my trip to Is­rael, I as­sumed you re­alised I meant af­ter the event. Oh, and when I said these were the only meet­ings I had, I ac­tu­ally meant I had sev­eral more meet­ings I didn’t tell any­one about.’

As a politi­cian renowned for his ex­per­tise at schem­ing, Alan Clark once said: ‘You must never ac­tu­ally lie.’

He meant that pol­i­tics can be a dirty game, but if you are ever caught out, you won’t get to play any more.

Yet here was a Cabi­net Min­is­ter ef­fec­tively ad­mit­ting she had been caught red-handed. She should have hung her head in shame, re­al­is­ing the game was up. In­stead, she clung on for a few days, only to suf­fer the hu­mil­i­a­tion of be­ing dragged back from a visit to Africa.

So the frag­ile boat is in stormy wa­ters, with more omi­nously dark clouds on the horizon in the shape of the forth­com­ing Bud­get, where ex­pec­ta­tions are high but the Gov­ern­ment has no money to spend.

Then there’s the threat of dam­ag­ing Com­mons rebellions as the Brexit With­drawal Bill passes through Par­lia­ment.

WHEN sit­u­a­tions hit cri­sis point, the eas­i­est thing is to tell a Prime Min­is­ter to be bold. It’s far harder to come up with a plan that sur­vives first con­tact with re­al­ity. When David Cameron was fac­ing calls to sack a Cabi­net Min­is­ter, he would lament: ‘One thing I’m not short of is ad­vice.’

He meant to say that most ad­vice com­pletely failed to un­der­stand the com­plex­ity of his sit­u­a­tion. Count­less peo­ple told him to fire An­drew Mitchell dur­ing the ‘Ple­b­gate’ af­fair, say­ing the re­lent­less grind of front­page sto­ries claim­ing the then Chief Whip had in­sulted a po­lice­man was harm­ing the party.

Those peo­ple for­got that Mr Cameron had a duty to let him ar­gue his case and have a fair hear­ing. Theresa May isn’t short of ad­vice ei­ther in­clud­ing, ‘Sack half the Cabi­net and put a new gen­er­a­tion in.’

The Prime Min­is­ter will worry that mov­ing so many big beasts re­ally could cap­size the frag­ile boat. So what’s to be done?

As an ad­viser to Barack Obama put it: ‘Don’t waste a good cri­sis.’ In other words, where’s there’s trou­ble, there’s also an op­por­tu­nity. It’s up to an ef­fec­tive leader to grab it.

Theresa May needs to show peo­ple that she re­ally is Prime Min­is­ter, the cap­tain of the ship, and not just a care­taker wait­ing for the mo­ment her party de­cides it’s time for her to walk the plank.

And she’s got more power to do this than she per­haps re­alises. For a start, the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Tory MPs are still – just – on her side.

They ac­knowl­edged the sit­u­a­tion can’t con­tinue but they fear the un­fore­seen re­sult of a lead­er­ship con­test. Af­ter all, this is the party that briefly thought An­drea Lead­som was one of the two most suit­able can­di­dates for the job.

So if they aren’t will­ing to get rid of her, that’s an op­por­tu­nity for Theresa May.

So my mes­sage to her is this: show ev­ery­one you re­ally are cap­tain of this frag­ile boat. Get out there and talk. Stop lis­ten­ing to the peo­ple who tell you it’s too risky. Re­mind them what hap­pened when they told you not to meet the vic­tims of the Gren­fell Tower fire.

In mod­ern times, that means leav­ing the Down­ing Street bunker and em­brac­ing a chaotic world. In re­flec­tive mood last week, Gor­don Brown – an­other leader not ex­actly known for the com­mon touch – spoke about how his re­li­gious fam­ily had taught him ret­i­cence and that made him fail to get his mes­sage across.

The parallels for a me­dia-shy vicar’s daugh­ter are plain.

The most ba­sic les­son of po­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tions is this: fill the vac­uum or it will be filled for you. So, Prime Min­is­ter, you need to craft a mes­sage that says we can all wish we weren’t in this boat, but that doesn’t change things.

The num­ber one is­sue is Brexit, and this is where you can lead and ed­u­cate, rather than say­ing lit­tle. That means spell­ing out some of the choices and com­pro­mises we need to make. Your great­est role is to make it safe and achiev­able.

BUT you will only get credit if peo­ple can see you have been lead­ing from the be­gin­ning. That means pay­ing money, be­cause we signed up to the bud­gets, and in­sist­ing on a tran­si­tion pe­riod, be­cause we face such a mas­sive change.

You should point out that be­cause it is so mas­sive, we may not get to the promised land of the ‘Canada-plus’ trade deal in one go.

In short, be the re­al­ist among the dream­ers. But you also need to be clear you aren’t de­fined by Brexit. So build a cal­en­dar of ac­tiv­ity that shows the breadth of what you care about.

Tell peo­ple you re­ally are go­ing to en­sure there is a cul­ture change in West­min­ster that stops young men and women be­ing abused.

While you’re at it, tell young peo­ple you feel their pain of liv­ing in a world where the lad­der isn’t for them in the way it was for pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions.

Peo­ple will try to trip you up. Take them on. You are af­ter all the cap­tain. You can set the course. If you don’t, the frag­ile boat will surely cap­size or col­lapse. The wa­ters will close in above your head and your rep­u­ta­tion will be sealed.

Get out of the No10 bunker and em­brace a chaotic world

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