To begin with, Theresa May was not planning to take a three-week holiday — but she was subtly advised that, even if she didn’t want such a long break, her colleagues needed her to go on one. She had just lost the Conservatives their majority, in an election she had called after consulting almost no one in the party. The weeks after the result were agonising: her authority seemed to have vanished, yet she remained in place. The cabinet was squabbling at a time when unity was called for. Everyone needed time to cool down. She had to ask for forgiveness, which would be hard. And they had to grant it, which would be even harder.
Now, refreshed from walking in the Alps, the Prime Minister returns next week to face perhaps the hardest part of her political career. She has a number of speeches to deliver later this month about Europe and domestic reform, speeches she will also use as part of her campaign to persuade MPs to forgive and forget. As they all know, much is at stake. The Tories can’t agree on anyone to replace her, which is why she’s staying. But if they enfeeble their own leader, out of revenge or anger, they’ll look criminally incompetent and might never be forgiven by voters, who are very close to choosing Jeremy Corbyn.
To understand the cabinet turmoil, it’s necessary to note how many ministers believe they were monstrously mistreated by May. Few felt trusted, or even listened to. One secretary of state, who failed to express total support for a policy in a cabinet meeting, afterwards received a furious and profane message from No. 10, warning him never to speak out against the Prime Minister in public. Cabinet meetings can be leaky, but only the most paranoid of advisers would regard them as a public forum.
The launch of what even sanguine ministers describe as ‘our crap manifesto’ proved to the cabinet that they weren’t being trusted. One secretary of state says: ‘None of us will ever forget being on the train going to the manifesto launch and being handed the manifesto. You had a carriage full of cabinet members anxiously flicking through it, not just to see what was in it in general, but what was being said about their policy area. You should have seen Jeremy Hunt’s face when he read about the social care policy. It began to dawn on us that May was heading into this totally unprepared. She didn’t want our advice, or anyone’s advice.’
Many ministers found themselves dreading life under a May government with a big majority. ‘It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I actually prefer the election result to her winning a 100-strong majority,’ confesses one cabinet member, who felt the Prime Minister would have become ‘unstoppable’. She had made a big show of ending sofa government when she took over from David Cameron, but May ended up operating what some felt was tyranny by committee: a rather boring way of ignoring ministers.
Even after the election, when senior Tories were seething at what May had done to their party, they couldn’t yet let off steam. There was a huge — and largely successful — effort from the staff left in No. 10 to warn cabinet ministers against destabilising the government, when there wasn’t actually a government. Would they kindly keep quiet until the negotiations with the DUP had successfully concluded? Though most assented, it meant their frustrations were pent up for even longer.
May is obviously no longer unstoppable: indeed, the question is whether the Maybot (as critics unkindly called her) is restart-able. There were times in the summer when her colleagues felt that she had physically shrunk, so great was the reduction in her authority (or in their fear of her). But to choose a leader, then refuse to let her lead: this would be a collective act of suicide by the Conservatives. They have to forgive the unforgivable (while she might have to lead what can seem, at times, to be the unleadable).
Tory MPs are confident that she will be in place until the Brexit negotiations conclude in 2019. There is now little jostling from would-be successors, and anyone who fancies sticking their head above the parapet any time soon would probably suffer the same fate as Adam Afriyie, who was roundly mocked for planning a leadership challenge against David Cameron in 2013. The WhatsApp group of Tory MPs (a new digital version of the 1922 Committee) is now much more vitriolic towards anyone who criticises the Prime Minister than it is towards her.
May needs her government to function, as well as not to bicker. Already, those on the EU side of the Brexit negotiations have delighted in creating a narrative that the UK is too distracted to offer proper detail. But there are some good signs. ‘Theresa has looked more comfortable since the election because it’s not naturally her disposition to be as dictatorial as the gruesome twosome made her,’ says one cabinet member, referring to May’s former advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. Their replacements — Gavin Barwell and Robbie Gibb inside No. 10, and First Secretary of State Damian Green as her second-in-command — have brought with them a culture in which the phone is answered and people are listened to.
The change does suggest something interesting about May herself. One senior Tory describes her as a ‘cipher’, and it does seem that Mayism isn’t so much how the Prime Minister governs as it is what her advisers choose to turn her into. Which might bode well for her ability to change tactics and style.
Those around the Prime Minister are acutely aware that she needs to do more than just survive. No. 10 is determined to focus on domestic reforms this autumn, and the chief whip has started emailing MPs a round-up of everything the government has done each week to show it isn’t stagnating. ‘We can’t be seen to be sitting round holding on to power,’ says one special adviser. ‘With the previous regime, the default response to anything was “no”. But we have been told by Gavin Barwell and Robbie Gibb that if you want to make a policy announcement and we can make it work, we’ll fit it into the grid.’
The revolution is already under way. Government departments have been told that if they can find anything that merely requires secondary legislation — which either appears on the Commons Order Paper without debate, or goes to a small committee with a government majority of loyal MPs for the lightest possible scrutiny — then they should go ahead and do it. Secondary legislation is supposed to be for the details that MPs don’t need to spend hours debating in the chamber, like the location of a road or the precise rate at which a benefit is increased. But governments of all hues abuse the opportunity to avoid a row, and can sneak past big, controversial policies with minimal debate.
It’s not just May who is under pressure. Philip Hammond has to produce a Budget that shows he is serious about governing after his own summer of letting off steam, which included appearing in the French press to speculate about Brexit. His last Budget ended in debacle when he had to tear up his flagship reform of raising National Insurance taxes levied on the self-employed. Tory MPs are expecting announcements on public sector pay, having spent the summer getting a fair bit of grief in their constituencies from public sector workers who earn far less than they do.
Hammond was most stung by reports that May had planned to move him from the Treasury once the election was over. But now he, like many others, feels safe: indeed, many cabinet ministers feel they have a guaranteed job until she goes. But senior backbenchers and more junior ministers disagree: they think the Prime Minister would have nothing to lose in a reshuffle and so should sack some of the more ‘unimpressive’ secretaries of state. ‘If she sacks a minister tomorrow, what are people going to say?’ asks one minister, who is presumably not thinking of himself. ‘They’re hardly going to rise up against her because they already know she’s going.’
Being in government, though, isn’t just about the plans you make; it’s also how you deal with the things that happen. Strong governments can weather these rows. Weak ones struggle. Irritation with a poor response to a crisis could end the fragile harmony. It’s strange to think that, just six months ago, Theresa May enjoyed the highest popularity rating ever recorded for a British prime minister. She was victorious in the local government elections, but managed to blow it all in a few weeks of disastrous campaigning.
In this fact lies the hope of her recovery, however. If her reputation dived so quickly, might it recover? If her party is keeping her, then it must focus on winning back the most important constituency of all: the voters who so recently saw the Prime Minister as a unshowy but fundamentally decent woman, doing her best in very difficult circumstances.
In Can You Forgive Her?, the first of Anthony Trollope’s parliamentary novels, he tells of Alice Vavasor, who picks up and then drops two men who want to marry her. ‘She knew that she had done wrong. She knew that she had sinned with that sin which specially disgraces a woman,’ he writes, ‘She told herself that there was no pardon for her… she could not forgive herself… But can you forgive her, delicate reader?’
Mrs May is asking to be forgiven for the sin which specially disgraces a politician: calling an election which weakened her government and destroyed her authority. Can you forgive her? On that question hangs the future of the Conservative party.
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