The most effective political insult of modern times was delivered by Norman Lamont in 1993, when he declared that John Major’s government gave ‘the impression of being in office but not in power’. But it is truer of Theresa May than it ever was of Major.
Lamont argued that Major paid too much attention to opinion polls, meaning that the government reacted to events, rather than shaping them. But May’s position is far, far worse: she has lost control of the House of Commons. On the most important issue of the day, there is something close to a shadow government operating. Such is May’s predicament that the best card she had left to play was the precise timing of her departure. She told Tory MPs that she’d quit if they passed her deal; she didn’t say when. There’s still a slim chance that she could depart the scene with dignity and change how history will view her. But her departure, now, is a done deal. Her party will lose no time thinking of life after May.
So, how will Brexit, Britain and the Tory party look after May? On Brexit much will depend on how things play out over the next few weeks. If May’s deal finally does pass, then this country will leave in an orderly fashion but with flexibility on what its future relationship with the EU will be. The deal does point in certain directions, but it doesn’t bind the government to any particular outcome for Great Britain. The irony of the indicative votes process is that for all the hoo-hah about Norway-plus or a customs union, you could negotiate either — or neither — of those options once the withdrawal agreement has passed.
Of course, there is a chance that the Commons will now compel the government to negotiate a more specific future relationship before leaving. Advocates of a softer Brexit believe that now is their moment.
Much of the mess of the past few months comes down to the fact that the government triggered Article 50 without knowing what it was trying to negotiate. This made it easier for the European Union to set the agenda for the talks. May’s successor must not repeat this mistake. In phase two, he or she must go into the negotiations knowing precisely what they want to achieve.
The other problem that May has had is not knowing what would get through parliament: the deal was negotiated with little thought for what would pass the Commons. If civil servants lead an inherently political negotiation, this is always going to be a problem. It would have been much better to have politicians taking charge of the process; they would have had a better sense of what could command parliamentary support.
Another way that May could have established what would get through parliament was by having a vote on her negotiating mandate. If she had done so, she would have given herself a clearer idea of where a majority lay in the Commons. But, in many ways, the problem is the composition of this parliament. Not only is it hung, but the balance of power is held by the DUP — which comes from the part of the UK most affected by Brexit. This is why it would not be a surprise if a new prime minister went for an election sooner rather than later.
There is, of course, a growing possibility that we could get an election far sooner. An influential group of cabinet ministers believe that if the Commons voted to continue free movement or for a customs union then it would be a fundamental breach of the Brexit mandate. Better to go back to the country, they say, than accept an outcome that contradicts the manifesto on which the Tories fought the last election. The problem with this plan is that most of the cabinet, let alone the parliamentary party, is terrified at the prospect of May leading the party into a snap election. But, as one minister concedes, ‘There’s no mechanism for getting rid of her if she tries to bounce us.’
But all of them are now thinking about life after May: for parliament, for the party and for the country. The most elegant option is for her withdrawal agreement to be approved, and for her to say this marks a natural end to her premiership. The deal is far from perfect or popular, but there is a strong desire to move on now. A return to a discussion of other political issues would be welcomed by the voters, although Brexit will return to centre stage when the trade talks begin in earnest.
If the uncertainty lifts, we can expect business investment to surge — offering a boost to the economy. Combine this with wages that are growing at their fastest rate in a decade, outstripping inflation, and we could have something approaching a feel-good factor. ‘If we get it through, the whole temperature of British politics changes,’ declares one senior Tory backbencher who has switched to backing the deal.
Of course, should the government collapse — with no conclusion to the current Brexit conundrum — the national mood will be very different. Politics will be even more volatile, and a general election almost certain. In such circumstances, virtually anything could happen. The old adage that governments lose elections rather than oppositions wining them could come into play. Britain could end up with a prime minister with considerably worse ratings than Theresa May: Jeremy Corbyn.
May is no longer a viable leader because trust, the essential lubricant of politics, has gone. Both wings of the party feel that she has misled them at key points in this process. Ministers no longer trust her word. May has even lost the confidence of her whips’ office, a remarkable state for any prime minister. ‘When she goes that black cloud will lift,’ says one minister.
When choosing a new leader, parties always look to correct the defects of the previous one. So there will be a premium placed on good communication skills, emotional intelligence and strategic sense. It is striking how advocates of Jeremy Hunt, the cabinet frontrunner, emphasise his ability to have proper conversations with colleagues.
Many of May’s problems have come down to personality, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that her premiership also included an attempt to reshape Tory philosophy. She wanted to recast her party as a much more Christian Democratic body. Her first conference speech was on the good that government can do, her general election manifesto declared that ‘our responsibility to one another is greater than the rights we hold as individuals’ and as PM, May has prioritised a big funding increase for the NHS and the building of more social housing. The question is whether this shift survives her departure.
It is tempting to view the leadership contest that will follow May’s departure purely through the prism of Brexit. But voters have a longer list of concerns about domestic issues that the Tories have neglected. Some Tories argue that the case for free enterprise needs to be made anew, explaining to younger voters how Corbynism will restrict their freedom. Liz Truss, the chief secretary to the Treasury, will be the most vigorous exponent of this approach. But Sajid Javid will make this case too, having been the most vocal cabinet critic of May’s views on economics.
Others argue that the best way to see off Corbyn is to take on the vested interests who have rigged markets to their own advantage, the undeserving rich. Michael Gove, who is thinking hard about running, will be the likely champion of this cause. There is a difference in tone and emphasis between these two positions. But they have more in common than you might think. Making markets more competitive and taking on vested interests are pretty much the same thing.
May is the fourth Tory prime minister in a row to have been undone by the European question. In truth, whoever was PM after the referendum result was likely to find their premiership consumed by the issue. Untangling 40 years of European integration was always going to be a complex and fraught task, especially given the effect that the issue has on the Tory party. But May’s misjudgments have made a difficult situation worse than it needed to be. She leaves behind an even greater set of challenges than the ones she inherited. The Tories can only hope that her successor is better equipped for the task.
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