Euan McColm: May apologists face harsh lesson in leadership
Had the Prime Minister stepped on a discarded garden rake and knocked herself unconscious as she walked off stage at the Conservative Party conference, it would have been the perfect conclusion to a speech that began as a last-gasp attempt to regain even a shred of authority before descending into an excruciating display that united many of those watching in pity.
As Theresa May coughed and spluttered through a speech whose content was lost amidst the grimly compelling theatre of the performance even her fiercest opponent must surely have wished for her agony to end. It was painful enough to watch as May awkwardly accepted a mocked-up P45 from the comedian Simon Brodkin; by the time the audience was staging ovations to drown out the sound of the PM’s incessant coughing and parts of the party’s conference slogan were falling from the wall of the set behind her, the simple observation of proceedings felt like an act of cruelty.
Allies of the Prime Minister (and when I use the word allies, I mean those colleagues who want to get rid of May after rather than before a Brexit deal is cut) swore blind that hers was a triumphant speech, just the sort of thing to gee up a Tory Party still smarting from the loss of its Westminster majority in June’s general election.
Of course, it was nothing of the sort. It was a thwocking great metaphor for the weakness of May’s leadership. Held in contempt by both her party’s excitable Brexiteers and the moderates who believe the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union to be a colossal mistake, May serves with the permission of MPs who agree she has to go but disagree on the timing of her departure.
In vox pops after the speech, one could hear real sympathy; what terrible bad luck had befallen May. But a brief outburst of compassion for a humiliated PM will not alter the inevitability of her departure from Downing Street at a time of others’ choosing (unless, of course, she does what any one of us in her situation would and walks).
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, whose defiance has been utterly humiliating for her, sits, waiting for his moment. Having thrown in his lot with the Brexiteers last year, he appears convinced the leadership is his for the taking at a time of his convenience.
Ask anyone in the politics game why May hasn’t sacked Johnson for repeated acts of public disloyalty and they will confidently assert that she is too weak to do so. This may be so, but the Prime Minister might find she’d appear less weak if she’d give Johnson the push. It’s certainly hard to see how her continued tolerance of his dissent improves her standing, either within the party or among the electorate.
Johnson provokes strong opinions from Tory members. He may be their favourite – with the support of 23 per cent – to succeed May, but some, among them fellow members of the cabinet, loathe him and will do whatever they can to prevent him from winning the leadership contest, whenever it may be.
Tory moderates are scrabbling about trying to find a Stop Johnson candidate (any applicant may also be called upon to Stop David Davis). Among those being muttered about is the pro-EU chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat.
Whether this is a developing plan or an exercise in wishful thinking by Tory centrists is not entirely clear, but it is certainly the case that a number of Conservative MPs reckon 44-year-old Tugendhat – a former Army officer – has the potential to reach out to younger voters who are, in England at least, currently quite besotted with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
There are some problems with the Tugendhat project (should he agree to play his part in it). For one thing, he has been an MP only since 2015. Yes, it’s true that sometimes being an unknown can help a candidate (remember how young David Cameron brushed aside David Davis in 2005), but Tugendhat is especially green.
And even if he could be persuaded to stand, I reckon Tory moderates are kidding themselves if they think the next leader is currently part of their faction.
When, two years ago, Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, his victory was seen by moderates in his party as a blip; everyone would soon come to their senses and a safe, dependable centrist would be installed as his replacement. It turned out that most Labour Party members didn’t want a New Labour Third Way merchant, they wanted a traditional left-winger just like they had in the good old days.
Labour moderates have spent the last two years facing up to the brutal reality of their irrelevance. Their influence in the party has evaporated and the choice now is to get with the Corbyn programme or consider one’s future as a Labour MP.
A similar fate surely awaits moderate Tory MPs.
The Conservatives’ ageing membership will want, when the current PM is finally led out into the yard, to see a bullish Brexiteer in charge. And that new leader had better respect their reactionary views.
Just as Labour continues to drift left, so the Tories will drift further right when, finally, May is toppled.
Twenty years ago, Tony Blair led Labour to the first of three consecutive general election victories. Blair succeeded by rewriting the political rule book, giving up on old notions of left versus right, and moving into the political centre ground. So successful was Blair, that others copied some of his moves. At times, Cameron resembled a Tony Blair tribute act.
Under Corbyn’s leadership, the Blair years are considered an aberration that must never be repeated. Under whoever succeeds May, the Cameron years will, I think, be similarly viewed.
The Prime Minister’s fate is sealed. And so is the Tory Party’s. When Theresa May succumbs to the inevitable, watch the Conservatives screech further right.