Could Theresa May's steely resolve win her the Conservative leadership?

It'd hard to say what will happen next, with both of the main political parties in crisis. So let's make this a time to reflect.

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Last year we published a long profile of Michael Gove, presciently headlined “The polite assassin”. Gove is renowned for his elaborate courtesy, his oratorical gifts and intelligence as well as his zeal for institutional reform. Yet perhaps his politeness matters little now compared to his ruthlessness and instinct for political assassination. First he destroyed his friend the Prime Minister and then, most spectacularly, his old mucker from Oxford Boris Johnson, having first agreed to run his leadership campaign. Few would doubt that the suicide bomber, as Gove is being called at Westminster, did us all a great service by destroying Johnson’s prime ministerial ambitions. We should be no less pleased that he also ended, inadvertently, the era of rule by the Notting Hill chumocracy, of which Gove and his wife, the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, were such essential members.

 

May ice queen

Speak to Tory MPs about Theresa May and you are told that she is cold, unclubbable and remote – not such bad characteristics in a prime minister at a time of profound national crisis. Clement Attlee, after all, was hardly clubbable and had none of the charisma of some of his rivals.

May, it is said, has few close political friends at Westminster; there are no Mayites. She does not have her own think tank and is part of no clique. She seldom dines with newspaper editors or lunches with the lobby. Yet this daughter of a vicar is attracting support from all sides of the party because of her unshowy seriousness of purpose. She also commands ­extraordinary loyalty from those who have worked for her; one former aide told me May’s staff would “run through a brick wall” for her.

By contrast, David Cameron had too many friends, all just like him, high-born and expensively educated – one tired long ago of reading about who was close to whom among the Cameroons and which wives were godmothers to whose children and who was no longer speaking to whom because of some act of disloyalty or another. In truth, the whole scene stank of entitlement and smug self-regard. But Brexit has ended all of this, and so much else, and David Cameron will soon be remembered for little but his doomed European wager.

 

Outside the bubble

What kind of Tory is Theresa May? One friend describes her as being a classically Burkean conservative, one whose positions are informed by the past but who is “focused on the present and future”. She is no rigid ideologue and her decision-making, which civil servants report is first-rate, is evidence-based rather than being informed by mere political expedience. “She’s capable of doing politics differently because of her refusal to play the game as it’s played by most in the bubble,” I was told by one of her supporters. “That makes her exciting and means her premiership could be very different indeed.”

 

Boris’s brazenness

Certainly one yearns for a different approach. In recent days, Westminster has resembled nothing so much as an extension of the Oxford Union Society, with the great offices of state becoming mere bargaining chips in a peculiarly English game of thrones. On Monday, the London Evening Standard reported on “the plot that felled” that paper’s longtime hero. “There was a phone call between Boris and Gove,” a senior member of Johnson’s campaign team said. “Gove wanted to be chancellor, deputy prime minister and chief Brexit negotiator. Boris agreed only on chancellor.”

Pause to consider the arrogance. Johnson had not even submitted his nomination papers, and yet he was blithely appointing his cabinet, simultaneously offering the same position to several people, in his usual careless manner. Gove, who is famously innumerate, did not want one senior role: he wanted three! In the end, Gove had enough and he detonated his suicide belt, with satisfying consequences for all.

 

Stations of the lost

On Friday 1 July, as I came through the barriers at Liverpool Street Station, I nearly walked straight into a group of soldiers. Dressed in khaki First World War uniforms, some were standing, some were sitting, others moved slowly in a line as if being led towards some indeterminate destination. All were silent. The effect was mesmerising. It was as if the ghosts of the fallen of the Somme were among us: the living and the dead mingling on this subdued early summer morning.

I was reminded of a passage in Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man, in which the author watches a division of men returning from the front. He describes an “army of ghosts” and how “. . . with an almost spectral appearance, the lurching brown figures flitted past with slung rifles and heads bent forward under basin-helmets”.

As Twitter soon revealed, these ghost soldiers were turning up at railway stations across London, as well as in Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow and elsewhere in the country. They were not professionals but volunteers participating in a commemorative art project, conceived by the artist Jeremy Deller and Rufus Norris, artistic director of the National Theatre, and entitled We’re Here Because We’re Here. The aim, Norris said, was to create “a truly national piece of theatre” that offered “a powerful way to remember the men who went off to fight 100 years ago”.

After a short while, I approached one of the men, his face palely powdered, and asked if he was an actor or professional soldier. He remained silent but handed me what I took to be a standard business card, on which was written:

 

Private Frederick William Patience

1st/2nd Battalion London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers)

Died at the Somme on the 1st July 1916

Aged 23 years.

 

There was nothing more to be said. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers