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“We are within one explosion of having King Harry”

The acclaimed historian has long held royalist sympathies, but recent events have thrown him into do

In the sublime novel The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald evokes how the news of the French Revolution in 1793 reached provincial Saxony by means of the Jenaer Allgemeine Zeitung, the newspaper that the poet Novalis brought back from his university. Novalis’s old father, Freiherr von Hardenberg, says: “I don’t understand what I am reading . . . They are going to bring a civil action against the legitimate king of France!” In disgust, he resolves not to read another newspaper until the revolution has been defeated. His other son, Erasmus, however, believes that “the revolution is the ultimate event . . . a republic is the way forward for all humanity”. I sympathise with both points of view, while wishing that I shared the beauty of vision of Novalis, who believes: “It is possible to make the world new, or rather to restore it to what it once was, for the golden age was once a reality.”

What would make Britain new? We urgently feel the need for renewal, for refreshment, after a period of bad government. Would it help to get rid of the monarch and reach forward with “humanity” towards a political system in which anyone of great ability – a British Barack Obama or Nelson Mandela – could provide us with the inspiring leadership we need? Or is our way to the golden age only to be found in our rootedness, our connection with the past?

The cliché that the present Queen has “never put a foot wrong” during her long reign points to the nature of our dilemma. As head of state she did nothing discernible to prevent the horrendous abuses perpetrated by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown over the past 12 years. When Blair tried to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor in a fit of power-mad tinkering, who prevented him – indeed, pointed out that it was constitutionally impossible? Not the head of state, no, but the old Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine and a spirited group of backwoodsmen in the House of Lords.

It was easy to see New Labour’s objections to a second chamber crowded with hereditary peers and bishops; the House of Lords needed drastic reform. But Blair, who created more peers than any prime minister in history, filled the place with his chosen friends and some others who were suspected of having paid for the privilege. Besides this scandal, the expenses fiddles of MPs are small beer. George V, in comparable circumstances, refused to give out peerages and insisted his own ideas about parliament be carried out. What did our Queen do? Apparently, nothing.

At the very same time, the biggest foreign policy blunder since the period of the Second World War was being presented in the Commons as a fait accompli. The Queen, as both head of state and colonel-in-chief of many regiments that would be despatched in the illegal and bloody invasion of Iraq, should have said no – the majority of her people were against it, after all – but she was as spineless as the MPs who lined up in the lobby to vote in favour of war.

If a head of state has no power, what is it for? The old answer – given at the end of a documentary shown by the BBC 40 years ago – was that the key wasn’t to invest power in her, but to withhold it from politicians. Monarchs did indeed once exercise such a role: it could be argued that having a constitutional monarchy, when other nations were kicking out absolute monarchs and allowing absolutist dictators to take their place, saved Britain from being ruled by a Lenin or a Hitler. Alas, the Queen has let successive leaders grab ever more power. Now the prime minister enjoys presidential power without presidential authority; we have an elective dictatorship that has destroyed the legislature and conducted a criminal war.

If our democracy is to flourish, we need a head of state with more power, not less – one that can hold prime ministers to account and, if they commit crimes, sack them. If only Queen Eli­zabeth II had the intellectual, political and linguistic skills of Queen Elizabeth I, many people would support giving her some of the powers of an elected president. The trouble is, saintly as she might be as a person, she is politically incompetent. After the Iraq War, parliamentary collapse, and the Lords and expenses scandals, it is no longer possible to claim that all we need in the head of state is someone to carry out ceremonial roles – to distribute Maundy money and say a few clipped words to the recipients of damehoods or the British Empire Medal. The Queen’s refusal to check the power mania of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair was no doubt motivated by the fear that if she stepped out of line, there would be calls for a republic – it would “damage the monarchy”. But if the monarchy is as ineffectual as this, why should anyone care whether it is damaged or not?

The answer might be religious. The Queen is a pious woman, and when she was crowned she promised to uphold the Protestant religion. No future head of state will be able to take any such oath without seeming ridiculous. Most practising Christians in the country are Catholic; the huge majority of the population is either secularised or signed up to a non-Christian religion. Whereas the monarch’s religion used to be a unifying force, it would now be a cause of (possibly dangerous) division.

As someone who instinctively favours leaving things be, I do not much like the direction in which these thoughts lead me. Like many people in Britain, I have an affectionate respect for the Queen, and am surprised that I should be having such republican thoughts. In the past, I used to counter any such notions by asking myself: “Would you really want President Hattersley?”

I now find that possibility rather cheers me up. With his chubby, Dickensian features and his knowledge of T H Green and other harmless leftish political classics, Hattersley might not be such a bad thing after all.

I would not reach for the Kleenex during Hattersley’s Christmas broadcast, and he would look rather a chump in his red robes, but these are small prices to pay. I no longer consider him any more absurd, as a potential head of state, than any member of the House of Windsor. It would take only a few deaths – an outbreak of virulent swine flu during a shooting party at Sandringham, or a helicopter crash – for us to have Prince Andrew as head of state. Think about it, if you are a republican. If you are a monarchist, try not to.

Monarchists do best not to think about how the republican system has produced heads of state of the variety and calibre of Charles de Gaulle, Mary Robinson, Mandela and Obama. Yes, Prince William could turn out to be our Juan Carlos. Yet we are within one explosion of having King Harry.

My fear is that, whoever becomes the next prime minister, parliament will not set its house in order. As things in Westminster slither from bad to worse, with more irresponsible silence from Buckingham Palace, the republican argument will seem stronger. We need a politically intelligent head of state, and only an election could produce such a figure.

I had these thoughts in the week that the Dean of Westminster announced a plan to add a corona or some other architectural embellishment to the abbey, above the point in the transept where the monarch is crowned. I was privileged to be asked to join a small group for a walk around the abbey after it was closed, as the light of a high summer evening faded from the windows.

It is eerie being all but alone in Westminster Abbey. Without the tourists, there are only the dead, many of them kings and queens. They speak powerfully and put my thoughts into vivid perspective. Ever since Saxon times, we have crowned our monarchs here, and a high proportion of them are buried here, too. As I walked from the shrine of Edward the Confessor, past the splendid tomb of Henry III to the tombs of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, I asked myself whether I truly wished to bring the whole system to an end. Then, among the shadowy tombs I wondered whether, in a strange way, the end had already been reached? Was the Dean’s idea of building a corona over the next coronation throwing into focus that, for the first time in British history, many people do not want such a ceremony to take place at all? Or will it, on the contrary, lead to a great surge of monarchist feeling, such as I have myself from time to time?

Just before you enter Henry VII’s chapel, there is a tiny paving stone recording that Oliver Cromwell lay there for two years. That was before he was disinterred, hanged at Tyburn and mutilated. Deeply moved as I was, among the tombs, by the thousand years of history that they represent, I was also very moved by this stone. I could not help thinking that those, such as John Milton, who followed the Good Old Cause of Oliver Cromwell might yet have the last word.

I went home and opened my copy of Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches by Carlyle – “Oliver is gone and with him England’s Puritans . . . The genius of England no longer soars Sunward, world-defiant, like an Eagle through the storms . . . the Genius of England, much liker a greedy Ostrich intent on provender and a whole skin mainly, stands with its other extremity Sunward, with its Ostrich-head stuck into the readiest bush . . . The Voices of our Fathers, with thousandfold stern monition to one and all, bid us awake.”

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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