Labour's new civil war

All is not well within the Labour Party. David Miliband’s backers are regrouping. The Ballsites are

On Monday 27 September, David Miliband stood dead centre on the main stage at the Labour conference in Manchester. His back ramrod straight. Here was the Lost Leader. Master of none that he surveyed. But he had come to deliver an important message. We must unite, he said. We must come together. An end to the briefings. An end to the factions. An end to the cliques. His audience rose as one.

Fast forward 24 hours. The bars of Labour 2010 in Manchester are jammed with delegates dissecting another speech, the one made by the new leader, Ed Miliband. In the bar of the Midland hotel, a former Blairite cabinet minister shakes his head and says to me: "It's a disaster." A senior Brownite mutters into his mobile: "Anti-business, weak on crime, no message." Another Gordon Brown loyalist shrugs and says: "Doesn't matter. In two years we'll have him out and Yvette Cooper in."

Across town a senior frontbencher sits down to dinner with the editorial team of a Sunday newspaper. What's his view of the speech? "If Ed thinks I'm going to follow that crap about not banging up criminals, he's got another thing coming. Life should mean life, and I'm going to keep saying it." The journalists smile. Did he know, they tease, that when Andy Coulson heard Ed praise Ken Clarke on lenient sentencing, he punched the air.

In the Radisson hotel a member of the new leader's campaign team looks at me, bemused: "We keep reaching out to people. They just keep brushing us off. They don't want to know." On the other side of the bar another Ed supporter clenches his fist in triumph: "Fuck the Blairites. How many divisions have they got?"

No briefings. No factions. No cliques.

The Labour Party has entered a post-cold-war era. The two great Blairite and Brownite power blocks have fractured. Where once there was iron certainty, now there is only doubt. "People are confused," one MP tells me. "They're used to knowing who or what they're for and what they're against. Now all that's gone. To be ­honest, they're a bit rudderless."

The politicians. The activists. The spinners. The strategists. The thinkers. The policy wonks. The organisers. The gurus. The army and camp followers that make up the great Labour tribe are emerging, blinking, into a new dawn. Some are fearful, while others are hopeful. All recognise the landscape around them has changed.

“New Labour was about marshalling everyone into Tony Blair's big tent," says the Compass chair, Neal Lawson. "That's the old politics. The new pluralism is about acknowledging there are lots of little tents. How you build those tents into a strong, progressive community is the challenge."

It's a challenge that excites him. No wonder. Compass spent the years of Blair and Brown out in the cold. Now, as he puts it, "Ed Miliband is playing all of our greatest hits."

Not everyone is impressed by the tune. On the other side of the encampment sits Progress: centrist thinkers to some, Blairite outriders to others. "Our message to Compass is, 'Good luck'," says Progress's deputy director, Richard Angell. "Have a go. If Neal thinks his leftist, statist prospectus is the route back to power, good luck to him."

The old dividing lines may be becoming blurred. But they have not been erased. This is why Ed Miliband's team are monitoring, with a vigilance bordering on paranoia, the signals emanating from the shattered bunkers of the two old great powers. How are the grizzled Blairite and Brownite veterans adjusting to the new world order?

Among the former, there is a clear sense of preparing for a long game. "We have to be realistic," says one insider. "If David had won, he would have been constructing a ten-year strategy. Unless there's a miracle, we're not going to win the next election, certainly not with an overall majority. We need to plan on that basis."

The plan, given the rancour that ­existed between the Blairites and Ed Miliband during the leadership contest, is a surprising one. "We've got to reach out," says another senior Blairite. "We've got an opportunity to shape Ed. To mould his vision. Read his conference speech. The Compass left were claiming it ticked all their boxes. But if you actually read the words, rather than try to interpret them, you see a clear message. The heir to Blair, at least in the short term, is Ed Miliband."

These overtures have been welcomed by Ed Miliband's team. "Look at the leadership election," says one lieutenant. "Ed and David supporters represent more than 80 per cent of the party. That has got to be the basis on which we build the new progressive consensus. The realignment has to start from there."

Former Blairite advisers have been in discussion with Stuart Wood and Greg Beales, Ed Miliband's chief communications and policy aides, about assisting in the development of strategy. There have been "clear the air" talks with members of David Miliband's campaign team. "Take someone like [the shadow defence secretary] Jim Murphy," says a fellow shadow cabinet member who worked with Ed Miliband on the leadership contest.

"When we were doing ­liaison between the campaigns, he was vicious. Incredibly difficult to work with. But since the election he's been a different person. He's been making a conscious effort to build bridges."

Not all relations are so harmonious. A number of Blairite ministers, such as Hazel Blears, Ben Bradshaw and Pat McFadden, were offered shadow ministerial rolls but refused them. There are policy tensions, especially in areas such as law and order and deficit reduction. "It's all very nice reaching out," says one former Blairite minister, "but it can't just be a choice of either silence or division. You can't just say, 'I'm going to kill New Labour, but don't worry, I'll be personally nice to you.' If I articulate an alternative policy prospectus, I don't want to see that dismissed as an attempt to drag people back to the past."

But the greatest concerns within Ed Miliband's team focus on the Brownites. Or rather, the Ballsites. Definitions are important. The old Brownite faction fractured during the transition to No 10 and split further over the leadership election. Ex-Brownite supporters, such as Douglas Alexander, who worked for David Miliband, and the New Statesman's former owner Geoffrey Robinson, who endorsed him as his second preference, went in one ­direction. The former chief whip Nick Brown ­endorsed no one. Younger Brownites such as Tom Watson and Michael Dugher worked for Ed Balls but moved in behind Ed Miliband at a crucial moment in the contest. Balls himself steadfastedly refused to back either of the two front-runners. Keeping track of where these disparate groups are moving is a priority for Team Ed. "People like Tommy [Watson], Michael and Ian Austin are good guys," says one member of the shadow cabinet. "We think we can do business with them". But what of Balls and Cooper? "They're the past. They're history."

The animosity that exists between Ed Mili­band's team and Balls is raw and pal­pable. "Ed Miliband's team are terrified of Ed Balls and Yvette," says one Brownite insider. "They think they're going to come and try to kill him. And the reason they think that is ­because they will."

Ed Miliband's first shadow cabinet appointments brought this animosity into the open. The decision to withhold the shadow chancellor portfolio from both Balls and Cooper was seen as an act of war. "Stuart Wood was ringing round journalists desperately trying to find out how hard Ed and Yvette were briefing against the appointments," says one friend of the most powerful married couple in politics. "It was embarrassing. If you're going to shaft Ed and Yvette, do it. But don't complain when there's a reaction."

There was a strong reaction. "They're already organising," says one shadow minister. "Yvette has been contacting all the teams identifying one member to be her link person. The cover is she's doing it as part of the women's brief. But everyone knows she's building a base."

Another insider, who is respected by both the Miliband and Balls camps, is more circumspect. "Yes, there was briefing. Ed and Yvette were genuinely upset. But we're at the start of a complex process. Both Ed Balls and Ed Miliband are having to radically reassess the nature of their relationship. That's going to take time. The danger is that good intentions are deliberately misinterpreted the wrong way. Both of them are up for a dialogue."

According to some members of Ed Miliband's team, the decision not to appoint Balls as shadow chancellor was political, not personal. They say he effectively talked himself out of the shadow chancellor role with his increasingly aggressive positioning on the deficit. "He just kept pushing it further and further," says one insider. "We didn't have any choice."

But they reject suggestions that the current deficit-reduction strategy reflects in any way the "Balls Plan". "Balls just isn't on the same page. This is Alan [Johnson's] and Ed's plan. It's nothing to do with Ed and Yvette."

For Balls, there was anger at the way Ed Miliband distanced himself from the government's record during the leadership campaign. "As the campaign went on, Ed [Balls] became more and more frustrated," says one senior aide. "Ed Miliband was acting as if what happened in government had nothing to do with him. It looked like he was dumping on Gordon just to get elected. Ed B didn't like it."

Others are more nuanced. "You have to remember there was a time when Ed Balls was Gordon's go-to guy and Ed Miliband was doing the photocopying," says one senior Brownite. "In the short term, that's hard to take. It needs a readjustment on both sides."

Ed Miliband's team acknowledge that Balls and Cooper pose a threat to their man but believe it is containable. "How many votes did Ed Balls get in the leadership election? OK, Yvette topped the shadow cabinet poll, but when you have to vote for six women, that's not that hard to do. They're just being driven by ego. They're trapped in the past."

The calculation Ed Miliband is making is that there's little appetite within the party for a return to personality-based agitation. That and a belief that the junior former Brownites are genuine in their desire to build a constructive relationship with the new leader. But one observer counsels caution: "People like Tommy, Ian and Michael want to work with Ed Miliband. But they're essentially tribal. If it comes to a war, they'll line up behind Ed and Yvette."

Some jockeying for position is inevitable in the aftermath of a change of political leadership. But, as a rule, structures are quickly created to channel and control those pressures. An impression is developing that Ed Miliband has not yet managed to put those structures in place. "It's clear Ed's team did not have a strategy for victory," I am told by one David Miliband supporter. "They operated purely on the basis of a series of tactical decisions. It's one of the things that have eaten up David the most. He feels he's lost to someone who had no clear idea why he wanted to win."

Even those around Ed Miliband acknowledge that they are on a steep learning curve. "You've got to understand the scale of the problems we've inherited," one shadow cabinet member tells me. "This is a party that's going through a healing process. The scars of the Blair and Brown years run deep. Ed's still a novice rider and he's trying to get to grips with a very large horse."

Some see the criticisms as little more than expressions of bitterness from David Miliband and his supporters. "David had his opportunity," I am told by one MP. "The MPs, the party and the machine were in his pocket. He blew it. He should get over it."

But among other sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party there is nervousness. "There's a sense of a vacuum developing," says a shadow minister. "People are looking for leadership and direction. And at the moment they're not getting it." Another shadow minister laughed at his team's disorganisation during their first Commons questions. "I got up to say something and sat down again. Can't remember what it was . . . It's all a bit of a joke."

Old stagers who lived through the Blair and Brown years are astonished at the extent of the autonomy being granted to the shadow teams. Policy development is being managed internally. Centralised control is minimal. One shadow minister confirmed that none of the teams had received instructions from the leadership on the need to avoid uncosted spending commitments until Alan Johnson demanded it.

“People are just going to have to get used to this," says one shadow minister who did not back Ed Miliband but is warming to his approach. "The days when things were just handed down from on high are over. We're being given responsibility. We need to be mature and run with it."

Some of the differences are generational. Not everyone has embraced the new politics, especially the rapid promotion of elements of the 2010 intake. "It's insane. They should refuse," says one veteran of the 1992 election, on hearing of the junior shadow ministerial appointments. Most members of Generation Ed report few problems. "It's working pretty well," says the shadow culture minister Gloria del Piero. "People have been helpful and supportive. After the election defeat there's a real sense of everyone pulling together."

However, anxiety runs deep. Ed Miliband's supporters claim to have been shocked by the hostility they received from Labour officials in the wake of his election victory. Ninety per cent of party staffers, whose votes were treated like a mini constituency, voted for David Miliband. "It was unbelievable," says one campaign worker, "they acted like we had no right to be there. Ed's going to have to clean house."

In order to help begin that process, Ed Miliband's team are reaching beyond the party. Caroline Badley, who masterminded Gisela Stuart's surprise victory in Birmingham Edgbaston, Nick Lowles, who leads Hope Not Hate's successful push against the BNP, and London Citizens, who worked closely with David Miliband's campaign, have all been asked to contribute to a campaigning template for the new leadership team. But again, tensions are surfacing.

London Citizens' aggressive organising model, built on church-based community activism, has met with resistance. "These guys burst in, hijack a meeting, demand everyone signs up to their agenda and talk down anyone who disagrees," says one veteran campaigner. A conference fringe meeting degenerated into rancour after London Citizens activists repeatedly called on Ed Miliband to endorse their organisational model and refused to let him leave the meeting until he had done so.

Maurice Glassman, the academic and god­father of British community organising, and someone so well connected that he worked ­simultaneously on both Ed and David Miliband's leadership campaigns, says people have to be open to a new way of working. "You ­cannot overstate the extent to which Labour has lost the ability to organise," he tells me. "Yes, we can mobilise. Get out the vote at elections. But then, once the election is over, it's all left to deflate like an old balloon."

Another reform Ed Miliband is considering is the introduction of a directly elected party chair. Again, the driving force behind the proposal is Compass. "The top priority for us and for the new leader must be party reform," says Compass's general secretary, Gavin Hayes. "We need a root-and-branch review of all areas of Labour's structure."

Party chair is the big prize. "This person will be the commander-in-chief of the grassroots, elected by individual members," Hayes says. "Ed isn't going to have time to be worrying about the nuts and bolts of party organisation. That's why we need this role."

But the putative commander-in-chief faces opposition from an influential quarter. "The unions won't go for it," says one source. "It'll be seen as a Trojan horse. If you get one member, one vote for an elected party chair, why not leader? In the unions' eyes, once you lose the electoral college, that's the link broken."

During the leadership election, David Mili­band told Jon Cruddas, the influential Labour MP for Dagenham, that he would introduce a party chair but only if it was by the election of individual members. Cruddas warned against this but agreed to approach the union general secretaries. They were firm in their opposition. It was a non-starter. Cruddas told Mili­band that even if he, Miliband, won, he'd refuse to stand.

What of the Lost Leader himself? Is he committed to uniting behind his younger brother, who many believe betrayed him. In the immediate aftermath of the election, there was no hiding his bitterness. "He was in a dark place," says one friend. "It was very difficult for him to take." But he has apparently returned from holiday in Italy reinvigorated. "Had he fought and lost, that would have been it," says a senior former campaign aide. "But the way he sees it now is that he won the party, won the MPs and won a decent share of the unions, even with their machine against him. He's not just going to walk away."

Another former aide concurs: "When I heard he'd put out that statement about building an organising base and doing some policy thinking, I didn't think anything about it. Then I went back and had another look. Policy development in education, environment and foreign affairs. His own activist model. Campaigning in the Scottish, Welsh and local elections. It was a pretty clear statement of intent."

“David's rediscovered his excitement in politics," says Lisa Tremble, his former communications director. "He's looking forward to the new challenges. He's not going anywhere."

The consensus of those close to David Miliband is that he does not believe the election defeat fully extinguished his chances of becoming Labour leader one day. He sees himself as the "under the bus" candidate, were political misfortune to befall his brother. They insist, however, that there are no plans to nudge Ed towards the curb.

Within the wider Blairite circle, there is residual sympathy for the manner in which David Miliband fought and lost his campaign. There is also a feeling among some that he needs to accept reality. "I don't think any of the candidates who lost last time around are ever going to be leader," says one former Downing Street adviser. "Over the short term there isn't going to be a vacancy. Medium to longer term, I think Jim Murphy is our standard bearer, with Alan Johnson riding shotgun."

Perhaps. But the one certainty is there are no longer any certainties. Everything is in flux. John Prescott's "plates" are shifting once again. When David Miliband made his plea for unity, it was undoubtedly sincere. But everyone seeks unity. The Blairite outriders. The Ballsites. The Milibites. The problem is not a desire for unity; the problem is lack of agreement on what to unite around. "Frankly, I wish Ed Miliband hadn't run," says one MP. "We should have had a straight battle between David and Ed Balls. One final reckoning. A fight to the death. Then the Blair/Brown struggle would have been resolved once and for all."

As it is, there is no resolution. Most people have not yet picked sides. They don't want to. They are the Ednostics, watching and waiting to see how their new leader faces up to the trials ahead of him. That represents an opportunity for Ed Miliband. But also a threat. There is some space. But also a void. If he doesn't fill it, others will. "He's got a window [of opportunity]," says one MP. "But he's got to use it. It's not ­going to be open for ever."

The tents have been erected, the campfires lit. They are either shining a light on a new political community or pinpointing the location of a series of enemy encampments. One MP's assessment is stark: "We're either on the threshold of the new politics or we're on the brink of a civil war."

No more briefings. No more cliques. No more factions.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Advantage Cameron

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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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