Psyched for Super Tuesday!

Raffaello Pantucci attempts to unpick the significance of Super Tuesday for the Democrats, the Repub

So, is everyone excited by Super Tuesday, or maybe you prefer Tsunami Tuesday, or Giga Tuesday, or the imperious Tuesday of Destiny?

To those who have managed to avoid the fevered American pre-election election, the real answer to all of these questions might be what exactly is this epoch sounding day that is steadily taking the American media cycle hostage?

Whichever name you prefer, the Tuesday in mind is 5 February, when 22 states on the Democratic side and 21 states on the Republican will hold either their primaries or caucuses to choose their parties nominees for the candidacy.

Amongst these states are the delegate-rich New York and California, both highly populous states that send large numbers of delegates to the national party conventions (that will be held respectively for the Democrats in Denver, Colorado on August 25-28 and for the Republicans on September 1-4 in St. Paul, Minnesota). In precise numbers it is somewhat hard to ascertain exactly what percentage of the delegates sent will theoretically be chosen on February 5, but a healthy estimate would place the figure at around 40%.

The hope in both parties must be that by the time titanic Tuesday rolls around the wheat will have firmly been separated from the chaff, and the parties will have at last have some better clarity about who the respective nominees are.

Unfortunately for the now knackered nominees - but doubtless much to the glee of political pundits and operatives - the field remains relatively open and unclear on both sides.

While on the Democratic side, it would seem as though it has been whittled down to a two-way race between Senator Obama and Senator Clinton, it would be unseemly to completely discount Senator Edwards, who is coming up to face his moment of truth in his home state of South Carolina (the next state to hold its primary vote on the Democratic side on January 26).

On the Republican side, however, the race would still seem to be very much for the taking. While Duncan Hunter (who he?) may have decided this weekend that he had finally had enough, the fact that Governor Huckabee, Senator McCain, and Governor Romney have all notched up primary wins so far means that theoretically any of them could try to build some momentum to swing the nomination.

And this doesn’t even start to take into account Mayor-for-America Rudy Giuliani whose entire campaign strategy has apparently been based upon success in Florida (though some more scrupulous pundits have done the numbers and calculated that Giuliani ran more events in New Hampshire than Senator McCain, and was third in spending on television ads in the state – neither of these are facts that would seem to be reflected in his final numbers in the state where he came a distant fourth).

But the mention of Florida in fact raises another confusing wrinkle in this pre-election election calendar, and that is while both parties actually hold their primaries on Tuesday, it is theoretically only the Republican ones that will count.

In retribution for the “race to the start” that states launched into last year to try to push themselves higher on the primary calendar (hoping no doubt to profit from the attention and money that would inevitably be lavished in the early states), the Democratic party punished Florida by docking all its delegates – while the more magnanimous Republican party instead only docked half of the state's delegates (it is worth pointing out that this has also happened in some of the other states who moved their primaries forwards in contravention to national party dictats, only further confusing things).

Still, a sweep of the state by Hillary ( the current front-runner on the Democratic side), will no doubt not hurt the gradual sense of momentum that is building in her campaign. However, on the Republican side, a particularly bad performance by Rudy “9/11” Giuliani may be the nail in the coffin of his hopes – while he has successfully played down his efforts in New Hampshire, his campaign has made a substantial song-and-dance about what he has been doing in Florida.

But all of this is only further evidence of how scattered both of the parties nominations remain. As stated before, on the Democratic side it seems as though it is a two-header with Obama and Hillary with Edwards a poor third, but the fight between the top two remains tense, with the electioneering degenerating to questions of who can win ‘the female,’ ‘the black,’ or ‘the Hispanic’ vote (different states have different proportions, and both leaders have campaigned that they own what would be seen as the other’s natural constituency, leading to absurd notions like Hillary is “blacker” than Obama – and conversely I suppose - that Obama is more of a woman than Hilary…).

On the Republican side, while it seems a fight between Romney (the establishment Republican nominee) and McCain (whose centrist appeal is a real potential threat to the Democrats), it would be foolish to completely discount the Huck’s hokey appeal to the Christian Right (for whom a choice between an apostate Mormon and McCain is a nightmarish prospect); Giuliani’s ultra-neo-con 9/11 fuelled celebrity; and even Fred Thompson’s why-the-hell-not effort. For that matter, Ron Paul should not be completely jettisoned either, proving to be a surprisingly effective libertarian candidate (who has in fact come even or beaten Giuliani in a number of primaries).

Suffice to say by the time we reach the post-Super-Duper-Tsunami-Tuesday, it is likely that nothing will be any clearer than it is now. We may finally see the Democratic side slimmed down to two, but on the Republican side, we may see a widely divided field that will allow three or more campaigns taking sufficient states to carry them on.

What happens after that will be a vicious scrap for the remaining states with both sides trying to raise their delegate tallies ahead of the conventions, a fact that is starting to worry party leaders on the Democratic side in particular who worry that a too close race to the end could end up with a cleaving in two of the party as dirty politics make the two sides irreconcilable. And to think we haven’t even gotten to the general election yet…

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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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