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From hubris to nemesis: the Conservative Party in crisis

Less than 18 months into her premiership, Theresa May presides over a lethally divided cabinet. Can anything restore her authority?

A new joke is doing the rounds of the parliamentary Tory party, and God knows they need something to laugh about. It is quite simple: “The end of May is in November.” It is a long way from the present feeding frenzy about the repellent behaviour of lecherous, predatory or ill-mannered male MPs to forcing the end of Theresa May’s rule. But there is a smell of decay about the Tory party under her leadership, not simply in its moral qualities but in its executive ones, as though its very heart is rotten. The Brexit negotiations have become an excuse for inertia and drift in every other area of policy. And, with the tactics of Michel Barnier and the EU commission irritating even some European politicians, Tories are appalled that so little effort is being made to argue the British case to the public: it is as if unhealthy introspection has taken over entirely.

On top of all this Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, commits a blunder before a select committee about a British woman in an Iranian jail that could land her with a further five years’ incarceration; and Priti Patel, the International Development Secretary, first denies having held unauthorised meetings with senior Israelis while on holiday then, even more humiliatingly, retracts her denial line-by-line. A strong and stable Prime Minister would probably have swiftly sacked both of them.

Patel’s eventual demise was an object lesson in how not to run a cabinet. First, so weak was May’s authority that Patel felt it unnecessary to make a full disclosure of her meetings with Israelis in the first place. Second, Patel’s junior minister, Alistair Burt, had to humiliate himself in the Commons on Tuesday by defending her actions even though it is clear the decision to sack her had been taken. Third, there was the further absurdity of the media tracking Patel’s flight back from Kenya, making her forced resignation into a circus event, and heaping further ridicule on the government. And fourth, even though May had had more than 24 hours to prepare for her meeting with Patel, she still delayed overnight the announcement of a replacement, because of her fear of causing further upset in her ranks. If more evidence were needed that this cannot go on much longer, we now have it.

A former long-serving cabinet minister, now in the Lords, observed to me before the torrent of sleaze allegations that in the best part of 50 years at Westminster he had never seen a cabinet so incompetent, so poorly led and so lacking in strategic sense. Not long afterwards, an ex-donor to the party told me something similar with, if anything, even more disgust and disbelief. Tories are dismayed that, in the face of a Corbyn opposition, matters are being allowed to slip in this way. Too many people have lost confidence in the Tory party and its leader; and an increasingly divided party, for whom the present furore has provided yet another excuse for in-fighting and score-settling, appears to be losing confidence in itself.

None of this means Labour will be in power soon: even if May were to fall, her party would, with the Democratic Unionists, make sure there was no general election. And Labour has its own problems, some apparently worse than the Tories’s, such as the story of a young woman, Bex Bailey, being raped at a party event and a Labour official urging her to keep quiet about it (though a Tory worker, and now a Liberal Democrat one, have also alleged similar experiences).

Whatever her other faults, May has manifestly never participated in offensive conduct towards women or encouraged it. However, the high-profile cases in her party have badly damaged her because of what they say about her judgment, and in the present climate it is hard to believe the worst is over.

Two of those embroiled already are men in whom May has reposed her deepest trust. Michael Fallon, who seems to have regarded women rather as dogs regard lamp posts, revelled in the media’s labelling of him as the Prime Minister’s Rottweiler. In reality he was simply a man who would profess to believe in anything his ambition required (a long-time professed Eurosceptic, he became a devoted supporter of Remain, and collected a knighthood in David Cameron’s embarrassing resignation honours list).

Damian Green, the First Secretary of State (and, in effect, May’s deputy), is accused of groping a female art critic 30 years his junior, and also of having extreme pornography on a computer in his parliamentary office in 2008 (accusations Green vigorously denies). Green is not universally popular and some colleagues find him a mediocrity; they believe he is in the government, and in such a senior position, because he is almost the only close friend May (who has known him since Oxford) has in politics. If mud sticks to Green, the fact he owes his rise entirely to his old friend will rebound on that person. It is widely believed among Green’s colleagues that May knew about his proclivities when he worked for her at the Home Office.

Part of the inquiry into his behaviour must be to ask what the woman who appointed him knew, and when. Another Tory who was at Oxford in the same generation describes Green as “an act”, by which he means he lacks conviction but is in politics largely because he likes the limelight. That may be unfair: but politics is about perception.

May has shown again that she lacks one of the fundamental abilities required of a leader, which is to deal with what Harold Macmillan called “events”. I wrote in these pages last month that many in her party believed, following the debacle of conference, that she was perhaps one crisis away from the end. That crisis is now upon her, and she has shown similar ineptitude in dealing with it as with its predecessors.

When it broke she, as a woman, was perfectly placed to put her own perspective on the offensive behaviour of men towards women, in a way a man would struggle to do while retaining credibility. She might have taken the view of Julia Hartley-Brewer, a journalist, whose knee Fallon repeatedly touched at a dinner, that while it is unpleasant for women to have to endure unwanted attentions, and the men who do it deserve censure, the women are not necessarily victims in the way that, obviously, Ms Bailey or anyone enduring a sexual assault is. Or she could have reflected the view of Jane Merrick, also a journalist, at whom Fallon “lunged” after a lunch; Merrick has taken a less-relaxed view of his conduct than Ms Hartley-Brewer, as she is entitled to do. But May made no immediate attempt to use her experience as a woman to try to lead opinion and, perhaps, build a new and more acceptable order out of a turbulent situation. Instead, she let the media take, and keep, the initiative.


Picture: Miles Cole

At Prime Minister’s Questions on 25 October, after the disclosures regarding the Labour MP Jared O’Mara’s coarse remarks about women but before her colleagues had been accused, May said that “all of us in the House should have due care and attention to the way in which we refer to other people and should show women in public life the respect they deserve”. It was no doubt sincerely meant but May showed remarkable naivety in not, it seems, letting it cross her mind that some of her own trusties, and not just pond-life from the Labour Party, were guilty of such behaviour. It was another sign of May’s mismanagement of her party, and of the seething hatreds within it, that Fallon should have become the first scalp partly as a result of the determination of a fellow cabinet minister, Andrea Leadsom (who has not enjoyed the prime-ministerial favours that Fallon has), to settle some scores.

The Weinstein-on-Thames scandal has, however, distracted attention from something much more fundamental: that May was in serious trouble before it started. It was always ambitious to believe she would recover from the pitiful way she led the campaign in the general election she need never have called, but her leaden response to the Grenfell Tower catastrophe, her inability to steer the Brexit negotiations, the woeful conference speech, and her failure to maintain collective responsibility in the cabinet proved an incapability that will still be there when the last groper has been defenestrated. She stumbles on only because the resolve, vision and unity needed to replace her and move forward are absent. Hardly anyone in her party expects or wants her to lead them into the next election; fewer and fewer now expect her to last until the end of the Brexit process in 16 months’ time.

A government with a sense of purpose and self-confidence, properly led and with a fully functioning whips’ office, would not have allowed itself to become hostage to fortune by grandstanding about MPs’ bad behaviour. It would have recognised the chance, bordering on a certainty, that some of its own would have been guilty; and it would have prepared itself to deal sharply and swiftly with them in a way that did not expose the Prime Minister to collateral damage.

Rumours about Green have circulated at Westminster for a decade; those about Fallon for even longer. Yet the whips’ office either did not warn May about the dangers of appointing Green her deputy; or, if they did, she ignored them. Either possibility indicates dysfunction. Fallon, identified with May largely because of the willingness with which he did her dirty work – a willingness fuelled by reports that he might soon replace Philip Hammond as Chancellor – ought also to have sounded alarms.

A similar reckless disregard for propriety, and for the potential to cause embarrassment and damage, infects Labour: why else would Corbyn have appointed Kelvin Hopkins, MP for Luton North, to his shadow cabinet when he knew of his behaviour towards young women?

The Liberal Democrats, as well as being faced with a rape allegation, have already had to deal with the incontinence of Lord Rennard; and the SNP too has had its first casualty following the resignation of Mark McDonald over an offensive remark to a female colleague. But none of those parties forms the United Kingdom government, which is why the Tories, who do, should have been more careful. The chief whip at the time of Green’s appointment after the election, and Fallon’s re-appointment, was Gavin Williamson, who has now created a legion of enemies in his party by propelling himself into Fallon’s former job as Defence Secretary. Williamson, who is 41 and MP for South Staffordshire, is one of those post-ideological Tories who thrived under Cameron, whose parliamentary private secretary he became. He has no ministerial experience, hitched himself to May’s leadership bandwagon after the European referendum last year with Cameron’s approval, and has since been in that small circle of people around May on whose (usually poor) advice she seems to rely uncritically.

Williamson’s appointment was further proof of another deficiency: May’s inability to have a serious reshuffle. Backbenchers, aware of the disregard in which this cabinet is held because of its incapacity, have been urging one on her since parliament returned from the summer recess. Her excuse then was that she had only just reconstructed her cabinet (in a minimal way) after the election less than three months earlier. But the pressure has continued: and the argument now is that no radical reconstruction can happen until after the Budget on 22 November.

When still chief whip, Williamson was doing the rounds assuring supporters that either just before or just after Christmas there would be a big reshuffle; it would be designed to eliminate all those sniping against the Prime Minister and to replace them with the completely loyal. Given the way most Tory MPs feel about their leader, finding even two or three of any certified ability who fit that bill will be taxing.

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Many backbenchers, and not just Brexiteers, want a new chancellor. But what if Hammond were to do something sensible and popular in the Budget, such as reversing George Osborne’s disastrous and revenue-slashing stamp duty reforms, or sorting out universal credit, or even rescuing the licensed trade, which is being taxed out of existence? Could he be sacked then?

And if he couldn’t, would May have the guts to fire Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, who presides over a department in which morale has collapsed and whose own baroque private life has, remarkably, been slow to figure in the current feeding frenzy.

Leadsom was in the departure lounge, May and her circle never having forgiven her for her wounding observation during the leadership campaign about May’s childlessness; but her intervention on Fallon suggests that waving her off might be unwise. If Leadsom makes such effective trouble while inside the cabinet, May should contemplate what she would do outside.

Few believe that if there were a reshuffle May would have the judgment to sack ministers who manifestly can’t hack it – of whom there are many – and replace them with gifted people who, usually because of their superior political antennae or intellect, she finds difficult to handle or, because of her suffocating caution, regards as dangerous. This would cause tension if matters were going well; as they are going badly it is unsustainable. Younger MPs – Kwasi Kwarteng, Tom Tugendhat, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Rishi Sunak, James Cleverly, Nusrat Ghani, Suella Fernandes and Kemi Badenoch – many from ethnic minorities, are grouping together to discuss policies, strategy and the future, a sign not just of political commitment but of restlessness and disappointment. It could yet turn to panic if Labour shows greater signs of cohesion.

If the Prime Minister survives her present troubles, the end of May will not come in November. But soon the pressure to reshuffle will become unbearable. It is hard to imagine how she can emerge from that process undamaged, given her knack for doing the wrong thing. May ran out of credit after the election. Now, her lack of grip and judgment exposed again, she is running out of options, and running out of time.

Simon Heffer writes for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. His latest book, “The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914”, is published by Random House 

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 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship