Apparently, it’s all about Theresa May. Her passage from stubbornness to sheer stupidity in clinging on to the leadership of the Tory party when, according to a poll released last week, 82 per cent of her own members want her out, is about legacy. The few Tory MPs who claim to understand how she thinks believe that it has at last percolated through to her that, were she to walk out after the catastrophic local election results, she would merely compound the view of herself as one of the worst prime ministers in history. They think she feels that if she can get a deal to leave the European Union, however bad it might be and by whatever means, she might yet slough off some of her iniquity.
It would be a measure of the almost deranged thinking of the present prime minister if that were, indeed, how she rationalises her behaviour. Any likely outcome of the shambles she has made of Brexit is still going to leave her with a place in history of which possibly only Lord North (1732-92) would feel envious. Even if she gets a deal – and the consensus in her party after the local election debacle was that she probably won’t – every day she remains in office is a day the Tories haemorrhage more support, both of voters and of donors. The financial state of the party is said to be appalling. If she does get a deal, and even if she resigns once she has (and the ambiguity of her language on that subject makes a swift departure far from certain), the collusion with Labour that would have enabled it would leave lethal wounds in the party.
After the elections the anger at all levels was toxic and sent MPs back to Westminster in an even worse frame of mind than before. It was not only the abominable results; it was ministers’ apparent inability to admit the size of the problem, or to take their share of responsibility for allowing this enormity to occur. Over the May bank holiday weekend James Cleverly, a junior minister and MP for Braintree, posted on Instagram a picture of the joint of lamb he was cooking for his Sunday lunch. In normal times such a winsome publicity stunt would have been ignored; soon, the picture was circulating among activists, who asked whether that was the best contribution Cleverly could make to repairing their shattered party. The sense of humour has collectively failed.
Countless MPs, not just former ministers but also even a former leader in Iain Duncan Smith, have openly called for May to go. They are not motivated by personal pique, but by the reaction of their constituents and activists, who see the party disintegrating before their eyes and demand an end to that process; and who fail to understand why May’s wilful wrecking of the Conservative machine has been allowed to carry on to this stage. One of her former colleagues told me to remember that she appears to have no life outside the party. She was once its chairman (when she endeared herself to few at the grass roots by branding the party to which they had devoted themselves as “nasty”), has spent most of the past two decades on the front bench and ended up as leader. Her colleagues note the deep satisfaction she seems to obtain by canvassing in her constituency and trying, successfully for the most part, to shore up support for herself in Maidenhead. She doesn’t want to go because there is no hinterland, no perspective. It is all about her, even if in being all about her it means killing the party she loves: the ultimate example of a love that is utterly destructive.
Since so much of what has happened in her party since January has been without precedent, or has wrecked precedent, it is hard for anyone to know what might happen next. A Labour-supported deal would cause a Tory civil war, perhaps provoking enough ministerial resignations to prevent a coherent government being put together. An inability to agree a deal, however, would in a sane and rational political system signal the moment when a prime minister would resign. And, unless all the polls are wrong, the upcoming European elections on 23 May – in which May had hoped we wouldn’t take part – will put the biggest torpedo yet through her already badly holed credibility by providing a substantial victory for Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party. The people will have had the opportunity to indicate, through the ballot box, that they take a view of Brexit that is not shared by the Prime Minister or many others in the political elite: they are quite happy to leave the EU without a deal.
May will be gone before long. She apparently said so herself, promising she would leave once the Brexit process was over. The decomposition of her authority is advanced. Collective responsibility has broken down. Most ministers resemble unfunny comedy turns rather than statesmen. There is hardly any government, as such. And morale in Downing Street is on the floor. Most of her staff were already seeking other jobs; the local elections increased their sense of urgency, as did the arbitrary defenestration of the hapless former defence secretary Gavin Williamson. Once Scotland Yard announced he had committed no criminal offence, the main reason for his sacking seemed to evaporate. May’s brusque, unilateral comment that the matter was “closed” appears to have been another act of panic-stricken weakness, to remove – according to Williamson’s friends – a man disliked by Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary and a longtime ally of May, on whom she relies to create such competence and order as remain in her administration. One is tempted to say that May’s premiership cannot go on, but, for the short term at least, one would probably be wrong.
Simon Heffer writes for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph
This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes