The Daily Telegraph
Chairman Theresa is poised to do as she pleases
Ministers and MPS are puzzled why Mrs May is moving Left when the Labour Party is collapsing
T here is no chance of the Conservative Party manifesto being leaked. For this to happen a draft must be shared with a few people, and Theresa May would never do anything quite so rash. The Prime Minister is famously secretive, relying on a handful of people to draw up her policies, so the manifesto may read more like the Thoughts of Chairman Theresa than a normal pact with voters. Her MPS are aware of the deal: she’ll lead them to victory, but it will be her personal victory. And the party will, then, be hers to do with as she pleases.
It’s hard to remember the last time that a Tory election campaign was so personalised. The party appears to have been renamed “Theresa May’s Team” with the Prime Minister asking people to vote for “my candidates” to strengthen “my hand”. It’s about “stable leadership with me” rather than chaos with the other chap. And it’s working: already you find voters who say they don’t like Labour or the Tories but will go with “Theresa”. Tory campaigners, accustomed to being chased down stairwells by dogs, are now being asked what it’s like to work for such a leader. Her popularity is immense and the Mother Theresa strategy is working brilliantly.
But inside the Cabinet, they’re not so relaxed. A few of them expect to be sacked, as she reshapes her government in her own image. Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, has been roadblocker-in-chief, so far rejecting many of her ideas as interventionist, statist or – in general – too Left-wing. “If her majority reaches three figures then she’ll probably sack Hammond,” one Cabinet member says. “And then do what she likes.” The concern is that, after the election, they may soon find out why she was not so keen on using the word “Conservative”.
In a speech today, the Prime Minister plans to condemn Jeremy Corbyn’s leaked manifesto as “a desire to go back to the disastrous socialist policies of the 1970s”. Strong words, but which of his proposals might she have in mind? The cap on bosses’ pay? Stopping “systemically important” British companies being bought by foreigners? Both were advocated by Mrs May herself inside the Cabinet, both (thankfully) vetoed by Mr Hammond. At the time, the Chancellor was able to say: “Interesting idea, Prime Minister, but that’s not in our manifesto and the MPS won’t wear it”. Soon, it might be in the manifesto – so they’ll have to.
Even Mr Corbyn stopped short of forcing companies to put ordinary workers on their boards, another one of Mrs May’s ideas. “What I don’t understand is where these ideas are coming from,” says one senior minister. “We fought an election against this agenda two years ago; we won a majority. So why adopt them now?”
This question puzzles many other MPS. When Margaret Thatcher’s opposition collapsed in 1983 she reshaped the economy – and the political debate – with radical conservatism. So faced with the same political opportunity, why is Mrs May moving Left? There is no conservative think tank, or MPS’ faction, lobbying for price caps on fuel bills, or more state intervention in the economy. The source of these new ideas seems to lie outside the party. This might become official Tory policy in a few days’ time, but no one seems to know for sure.
Some ministers are hoping for a short and vague manifesto, and dread the return of ideas they all hoped she’d been talked out of. The Cabinet members whom Mrs May trusts are being briefed about the parts of the manifesto relevant to them, but the others (i.e. most of them) are being given only a small part of the picture. Nick Timothy, her chief of staff, has been writing the document, so her personal control over the process is near-absolute.
Mr Timothy has made surprisingly few enemies for a man who has more influence than the rest of the Cabinet put together. There’s no real sense of resentment, just a sense of dislocation. Tories, even the senior ones, now feel like passengers heading in a direction they don’t quite recognise, for reasons they don’t quite understand. Mrs May won’t say where she’s going or why, because she doesn’t really do explanation. She’s strong and stable: that’s all they need to know.
When Mrs May became Prime Minister it was assumed that she’d have to change the way she worked, widen her pool of advisers and work far more closely with her Cabinet. She’d have to be less controlling and dissolve her close-knit group, it was said, change her style if she wanted to manage the party. Now, it seems she’s changing the party to match her style.
And successfully. Tories might grumble about this, but not very much. A few joke that the new manifesto should open with a big apology to Ed Miliband, but they like power and usually follow anyone who brings it their way. Also, they say, if Mrs May is about to swallow the Labour Party whole, she can surely be forgiven if a few of its feathers end up on her lips. She has united her party after Brexit and united the Right by squashing Ukip – so perhaps using a bit of Labour language could take her further still.
It’s also hard to overstate the extent to which Brexit has eclipsed almost everything else for so many Tories. Even the No Turning Back group of MPS, supposedly Thatcherite praetorians, aren’t too worried about the energy price cap, or the extra tax and debt, because Mrs May will bring Brexit. And this, they believe, will force the government to be leaner and the economy more competitive – no matter what Mrs May puts in her manifesto.
This faith is not shared by proremain Tory MPS. “They think the Brexit fairy is going to come and lower everyone’s taxes,” says one. “But I’m afraid I don’t believe in the Brexit fairy.” They worry that, after Mrs May’s third-way ideas, Britain will end up with continental dirigiste policies and that we’d end up leaving Europe only to become more European. That the Tory party may win next month, but that conservatism would lose.
Just over two years ago, Conservatives were preparing for years in the wilderness – now Labour is coming apart before their eyes. Never has the party been more confident of victory in an election. But never have they been less sure about what that victory might mean.