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Theresa May is one more crisis away from self destruction

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

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.

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.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”