It might seem that Theresa May, in calling an election, made the worst such miscalculation since Ted Heath’s in February 1974. But it was worse than that. Heath lost to Harold Wilson, a former prime minister of huge stature. Mrs May’s adversary was Jeremy Corbyn, who until early on 9 June was a figure of contempt for almost her entire party. The humiliation is abject.
So intent are the Tories on survival, however, that apportioning blame has taken a lower priority; but MPs feel the burden rests with May, which explains why she is on borrowed time.
Friends of Lynton Crosby, his own reputation as the Red Adair of politics already depleted after the Brexit vote, have briefed that Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s two ex-advisers, were to blame for the inane “strong and stable” slogan and for manufacturing a personality cult of a prime minister with no personality. Many MPs blame Crosby.
Timothy has denied writing the most toxic parts of the manifesto; Ben Gummer (in whose defeat colleagues take an almost obscene delight) cannot; Hill, who appears to have evaporated, is blamed for a negative communications operation that kept May from the media and the public. Both Hill and Timothy are blamed for encouraging her to ignore advice from anyone else, especially cabinet ministers.
Tories don’t want a leadership contest yet: the Democratic Unionist Party must be squared, the Queen’s Speech (largely anodyne) secured and the Brexit negotiations embarked upon. Graham Brady, whose stature was never negligible but has rocketed in his conduct as chair of the 1922 Committee, has decreed the boat must not be rocked.
Michael Gove is back, broadcasting unity. The speed with which Boris Johnson denied stories that he was “on manoeuvres” suggested some self-knowledge but also a sense of siege, in which only if everybody keeps his head can a Tory government survive.
The anger in the aftermath of the result has mildly abated. The bad news for May is that, even when calmer, most of those on whose support she depends still believe she cannot lead them into an election. One suggested she should use her party conference speech in October to say, “Thank you and good night,” and declare the contest for her successor open. Another, angrier, said he would be astonished if she lasted that long.
Ironically – as the man after whom it is named has been agitating contrary to the prevailing advice – the Heseltine doctrine weighs heavily on those anxious to promote a rival leader: he who wields the knife never wears the crown. The consensus is that there must be an orderly transition, with Mrs May going of her own volition: or, at least, after a visit from the men in suits (who haven’t been seen in action for some years), made to look as though the departure is of her own volition. But few want that just yet.
Nonetheless, Tories are talking about four possible candidates (so far) who – when a vacancy occurs – they would like to see in the contest. There is also the hope that if that contest doesn’t happen for several months yet, the party will have enough time to study the demeanour of potential leaders under fire and at a time of pressure and possible crisis, and appraise their lack or otherwise of what David Davis has called “self-indulgence”.
Most MPs – indeed, Tories generally – seem to favour a final choice between a Brexiteer and a Remainer (as with the English Civil War, ancient distinctions threaten to last a few generations yet). Virtually all Theresa May’s party may be Leavers now, but it is hard to convince the ur-Leavers of the sincerity of the converts, especially after their experience of Mrs May.
A group of younger MPs of throbbing ambition has remained close to Johnson, not least because their talents are so limited that he is their best chance of achieving office. The extent of their wit is that they also sincerely expect him to reward them if he gets to No 10. It was down to them that last Sunday’s stories appeared in the press.
Johnson may be lazy, duplicitous and inept, but he is not stupid, hence the ferocity and very public nature of his denials after the reports. His reputation dented after the debacle of his 2016 leadership bid and by his amateurish conduct at the Foreign Office, quite a lot of the lustre has come off.
Although the Tories are belatedly desperate to connect with what Harold Macmillan once called “young people”, and Johnson has the knack of doing that through his buffoon act, his stock has declined among colleagues and at the grass roots, and even he knows it.
Amber Rudd would be well placed if her majority in Hastings were 40 or 50 times the 346 she attained. She couldn’t possibly lead what will be an election campaign of unprecedented intensity and still hope to be in the Commons after it. Remainers are thus pinning their hopes on Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, who demonstrated his ruthlessness in his reappointment interview with May by demanding she sack the advisers he blamed for briefing against him during the campaign.
Also – because, as I wrote here before the election, he had not been consulted about the suicidal social care scheme – he demanded a restoration of cabinet government. His credentials are better than ever, but after the charisma-free campaign the Tories have just witnessed, Spreadsheet Phil isn’t the man to break the mould.
The Brexiteers’ Brexiteer is David Davis. Defeated for the leadership in 2005, he has changed since then: he is a better communicator, more self-deprecating and viewed by colleagues as an approachable man with principles they can respect, even if they don’t always agree with them. A large number of MPs want him to stand. Nothing can be certain, and the party is thrashing about wildly while attempting to re-anchor itself, but the cleanest contest for now would be Hammond v Davis.
This article appears in the 14 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel