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12 October 2017

Theresa May is one more crisis away from self destruction

But a contest, when it happens, must be swift.

By Simon Heffer

Had Theresa May chosen a useful idiot to launch a leadership challenge against her, following her and her party’s pitiful conference in Manchester, it would have been Grant Shapps. Shapps, who was chairman of the party under David Cameron, is a laughing stock in the parliamentary party, and mostly forgotten outside it.

He was a poor chairman, and his estimation of himself and his achievements suggests he is a fantasist. He was on what most of his colleagues now regard as the wrong side on Brexit; and, like Palmerston, does not have friends so much as people who share his interests, in this case in deposing Theresa May. His attempt was doomed from conception, and his position (or lack of it) in the party is the reason why it was so helpful to the whips to leak his intentions. It is a rare thing the party machine has done well lately.

But the snake is scotched, not killed. As has been said, May is perhaps one more crisis away from the moment when even those – such as the august Nicholas Soames – who plead for an end to the self-indulgence must concede the party is unmanageable under her. Soames’s intervention the Monday following conference was enormously helpful to her because he is respected by most Tories, inside and outside Westminster.

Others defending her are less plausible. Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s elaborate displays of loyalty may be sincere, but many activists regard them as patronising, and too many voters see them as irrelevant. And her popularity in the party is on the floor.

The same is true of Karen Bradley, the Culture Secretary, her public profile subterranean compared even with Rudd’s. That no one believes a word Boris Johnson says means his protestations come with no value added. Even many Brexiteers have nothing but contempt for him, since they have never believed he is sincere in his beliefs about leaving the EU and mounts that bandwagon solely for reasons of personal ambition.

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The next crisis will come and, like most, will be self-inflicted. The Manchester debacle has been blamed on May’s advisers, who thought it a good idea to have her make nearly 30 interview and fringe appearances during the conference, wearing her out. One can almost understand their thinking: the Prime Minister, and she alone, was responsible for the disaster of the general election in June, and she should take every possible opportunity to try to rebuild her standing by meeting as many of the faithful, and talking via interviews to as many members of the public, as possible. There was no consideration of the physical effect on her, a lapse all the more remarkable given that she is diabetic.

And May’s performance when delivering her conference speech, like the stunt by a so-called comedian and letters falling off the slogan behind her, certainly did detract from her message. That, though, was perhaps a blessing, because the message was inadequate too. Other than the handsome apology for the election, the speech was thin and contradictory: there is no point praising the free market in one sentence and then announcing a Milibandine cap on energy prices in another.

Even had the delivery been perfect, the speech would have rallied no one; not only does the Prime Minister lack decent tactical and strategic advice, she also lacks people around her who think seriously about policy. The centre-right think tanks of London cry that no one listens to them any more, and they are correct.

As for that next crisis: she is being urged to reshuffle. On the one hand a reshuffle proves her “strength” and “authority”; but equally it can, and probably would, prove she has neither. Johnson’s “friends” – a group of third-rate MPs whose only hope of office is if he becomes leader, and if he is telling them the truth about his intentions for them – say he would “walk” if he were demoted.

Given Johnson’s poor standing in the party after his recent acts of indiscipline, May should invite him to do his worst. There would be headlines for a few days; he would snipe from the sidelines; he would become increasingly irrelevant as what little remaining respect in which he is held drips away from him. Johnson badly wants to be leader, and as such he should deploy his supposedly large brain to realise that even if May asked him to take charge of the llama pen at London Zoo in the interests of the party, he would rise in the party’s esteem were he to agree.

The idea of sacking Philip Hammond, despite the Chancellor’s dismal speech at Manchester and his running counter to most of the party on Brexit, would be the swiftest way to end her premiership. Hammond is not the troublesome type, but he has friends who are: May should reflect for a moment on the end of the ministerial career of Geoffrey Howe, and what ensued from it.

Ranks are closing because many MPs believe there is no alternative to May, and because they know how damaging a three-month leadership contest would be to the party, the government and the country. More enlightened MPs make two points: that nature abhors a vacuum, and that it doesn’t have to be (and, indeed, some say it should not be) a member of the existing cabinet who takes over, given the shake-up the party needs.

Dominic Raab, a Brexiteer who was close to Michael Gove, is widely regarded as a possible leader, and MPs who never saw the point of Jacob Rees-Mogg were astonished by the ecstatic reactions he provoked in Manchester.

The length of the campaign is at the discretion of the chairman of the 1922 Committee. It can last just three weeks if required; whether May is sent off by the suits or wakes up one morning and just can’t take it any more, it probably will.

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled