A rare thing that the Tory party has done well since its election debacle is to keep out of sight during the parliamentary recess, desist almost entirely from internal bickering, and give everyone a chance to take a deep breath and contemplate what the hell to do next. There is still discontent with Theresa May, especially among parliamentarians, but while nothing much is ostensibly happening, there is little provocation to force the issue with her. However, real life is about to resume, and the elephant traps of what Harold Macmillan languidly called “events” are about to be set.
Beneath the veneer of silence there has been activity. All departments have been told that Brexit successfully accomplished is the priority, hence the emergence of position papers from parts of Whitehall. There is a mandate for EU withdrawal that preceded the election; and discharging it removes the necessity for some departments to try to justify their existence through acts of political initiative. With no majority in the Commons and the DUP to be taken for granted only by fools, anything requiring a vote is not to be broached lightly. It is a great time for minimalists who think there is too much government: Brexit aside, there may be little for the foreseeable future.
Even before her comments in Japan that she was “in this for the long term”, Theresa May seemed determined to survive. She invited Tory MPs, in five shifts, to Chequers for drinks and an attempt at some public relations over three days in mid-August. Many had never been before, and the very fact of being invited transformed the regard some of them had for her: a testament to how easy it is to please some of the people some of the time. The dereliction with which May conducted the election appears to have been forgiven and forgotten by some of them over the charm offensive.
She has bought some time, a feat her colleagues attribute to the superior advice she is now receiving in the post-Fiona Hill era: Nick Timothy, her other former adviser and by far the less culpable of the two, is apparently often still to be found at the other end of her telephone, and no one much seems to mind.
There is one other piece of good news for May. According to his friends, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, will not be entering the Brexit fray between now and the Budget in November: he is too busy trying to construct a blueprint for 2018 that will keep the economy in reasonable shape without frightening the backbench horses. However, there is a growing sense among many MPs that May, if she is going to stick around, needs to prove she has some authority by imposing her will on her administration.
That means dispensing with the obvious duds – Boris Johnson, Patrick McLoughlin and Chris Grayling are the most frequently cited – and replacing them with people who can actually do a secretary of state’s job in difficult, minority-government, circumstances. The reappointment of almost her entire cabinet in the shell-shocked days after her party’s moral defeat in June is viewed as having been a holding operation; something more permanent must now be put in place if she is to be taken seriously.
MPs still shaken by the impact Jeremy Corbyn had on the electorate believe that their party must start campaigning: and with a timid leader, it needs an enterprising chairman. Having realised that he appears to have become a cult figure among the young – and is increasingly ubiquitous on social media – Jacob Rees-Mogg is being discussed in that context. He has supplanted Boris Johnson as the teenagers’ favourite and, unlike Johnson, has an unimpeachable reputation for integrity and competence. He is also accomplished and intelligent, and would boost the brainpower of an administration woefully short on it.
On the same basis there are calls to get Peter Lilley, the former trade secretary, who retired as an MP at the election and is expected to receive a peerage, into the government to bolster up David Davis in the Brexit department. Lilley is not merely a serious intellectual but is also blessed with a seen-it-all-before imperturbability that would serve the government well against the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
May has let it be known that she intends to make two significant speeches in the coming weeks, as part of her personal campaign to restore her credibility with the wider public. One is her address to the Conservative Party conference, which she can at least deliver from the basis that she recorded the highest Tory vote share since 1983 – it was just unfortunate for her that Labour’s popular vote was almost as remarkable.
Yet the other speech, expected to come sooner, is likely to set out an upbeat vision of Britain’s future once Brexit is accomplished in March 2019 – part of the strategy that puts Brexit first. If both speeches work, May will have bought herself some credibility, and therefore more time. However, if either fails, or there is another event or catastrophe, such as Grenfell Tower, to which her response was perceived to be inadequate, the vultures will start circling.
That, sadly for her, is the reality of a prime minister who has expended all her political capital and is living off an expensive overdraft. Living is only cheap and easy when MPs are dispersed on holiday, and not around to plot or find fault. Some now believe that Theresa May can survive until Brexit is over; others that events, or her own shortcomings (notably of empathy, decisiveness and vision), will conspire against her before then.
After the serene inactivity of recent weeks, normal parliamentary life is about to resume and it will remind us that May’s eventual departure is unlikely to occur at a time of her choosing.
Simon Heffer writes for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph
This article appears in the 30 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire