Jo Johnson was not the only mild-mannered soul to give up on Theresa May last week. An elderly friend of mine – let us call her Molly – decided after more than half a century’s activism that she could no longer bear belonging to the Conservatives. Molly once ran the voluntary party in western England. Under Margaret Thatcher and John Major she held national positions and knew plenty of Cabinet ministers, including Mrs May. Although a Leaver, she quite liked David Cameron and regarded Ukip with displeasure. But she now feels so adrift, so un-led, she will not renew her Tory membership.
When she calmly told me her decision, I was staggered. For this most true-blue of Tory ladies to quit the party is like Sir Roy Strong buying a Barratt home, the Dalai Lama joining the Goldman Sachs board, Nancy Dell’Olio repairing to a nunnery. But Molly has had enough. She thinks Mrs May limp. She cannot abide Philip Hammond. She thought Chequers an outrageous ambush and she has been dismayed by the way Sir John Major, as he has somehow become, is trying to overturn the referendum. On Brexit, Molly would prefer no deal to the capitulation seemingly in the Downing Street pipeline.
But this is about more than Brexit, as the Metropolitan Police’s commissioner, Cressida Dick, made clear in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph.
Ms Dick’s criticism of Mrs May for a failure of “central drive and leadership” was significant not just because law and order is crumbling. It was worth heeding because, like Jo Johnson and Molly, Ms Dick is the sort of level-headed person who normally hesitates to cause trouble. It’s often heard that “the peasants are revolting”; now it is “the moderates are revolting” and that is more remarkable.
With many prime ministers, the complaint goes that they are “all things to all people”. Think Cameron, first-term Blair, Wilson, Macmillan. If it could only be said of Mrs May, she might be in a stronger position. Her problem is that she is nothing to anyone. I do not mean this in a nasty, personal sense, for she is a charitable churchgoer and her husband, Philip, loves her. I simply mean that she excites no loyalty politically. Some onlookers claim that the parliamentary Tory party is aboil with sabotage. Is it? Apart from one or two quixotic gallopers, backbench Conservative MPs have been amazingly patient with Mrs May. They would love to support her if she only gave them more reason. “We are not a sinking ship,” says one, “but we are a ship that will eventually mutiny if pushed to it.” My MP friend had a one-to-one with Mrs May. He left kicking the carpet in frustration because she could not comprehend his need for political ammunition. Politicians must have facts and clear arguments to withstand their opponents.
Mrs May seems not to grasp that other parliamentarians – Jo Johnson and Tracey Crouch are but the latest – have their breaking points. She expects everyone else to be as grindingly careerist as she is. Here is the paradox of Theresa May: she is uncompromisingly elastic. Ardent Brexiteers grumble that she seems only to stretch towards the EU but Jo Johnson’s resignation shows that even Europhile Tories have now had their fill of her technocratic surrenders. Has there ever been a party leader with less of a base?
In Ms Dick’s despairing cry for “leadership”, Telegraph readers of a riper vintage may be reminded of Peter Simple’s character Lt Gen Sir Frederick “Tiger” Nidgett, of the Royal Army Tailoring Corps. In his rhododendron-infested garden near Godalming, eyes blazing, Nidgett would bark about “leadership, initiative, vision, leadership and, above a all, bags of guts”. Yes, a fetish for f leadership per se can be silly. But B without a prime minister’s s support, subordinates become paralysed. p They need the person at a the top to ignore special pleading p (for instance from civil liberties groups) and make a hard decision. Ms Dick is no Nidgett. She needs her political boss to give her permission to introduce facial-recognition technology that could help her collar “bad guys”.
Dismissing criticism of Mrs May as sabotage is blind silliness. A prime minister has to earn loyalty, be it from police commissioners, MPs or long-suffering Mollys.