In stormy waters it’s time Theresa showed she’s the captain of the ship
(and here’s the course she should plot)
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