Anyone speaking in public risks the embarrassment of a prolonged coughing fit causing the voice to break down. Any politician on a public platform is vulnerable to interruption by a prankster trying to make a point by handing out a P45. That both should have happened to Theresa May during her closing speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester on Wednesday will seem to some simply a case of double bad luck. But to many others it will seem emblematic. It will be seen as a vivid metaphor of a prime minister struggling to carry on and of a government no longer in control of events. How true is that? And, if it is, what chance does the Tory Party have of reviving its fortunes and staying in office under Theresa May?
Very little has gone right for the Conservatives since last year’s party conference. Back then it had a new leader commanding respect and support in the country and intent on delivering what a clear majority of voters had asked for in the summer’s referendum: Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. But from the moment she stepped into Downing Street she had made clear she had broader ambitions too. She wanted to transform both her party and her country. Her new government would be run not by public school boys with rich friends and a metropolitan mentality, but by more traditional, old-fashioned, down-to-earth Conservatives with a commitment to public service in aid of less fortunate, struggling people ‘just about making it’.
Many were struck by the sincerity of this ambition and were prepared to give her the benefit of any doubt. And she took this to mean that support for her among the electorate was strong enough for her to risk an unnecessary election. The prize of ten years more at No 10 seemed eminently winnable. Few disputed the calculation.
We all know what actually happened. The loss of her parliamentary majority instantly drained her of authority and since then her government has seemed at best to be adrift or actually visibly sinking. Her Cabinet has appeared riven by disagreement over what Brexit should ultimately involve. Discipline in her ranks has all but broken down. Her official rival for office, the most left-wing leader in the Labour Party’s history, has morphed from fumbling incompetent into folk hero. Meanwhile, her supporters have looked on in vain as their leader seemed unable or unwilling to do anything about it all.
Members of the Conservative Party assembled in Manchester this week in a more dispirited and frightened mood than any of them can remember. Even friendly journalists were writing of a ‘zombie’ government led by a prime minister suffering from something like post-traumatic stress disorder.
But they were not going to give up easily. The conference was supposed to be the occasion when these misfortunes would be reversed and the fightback would begin. The party was to declare what it had ‘learned’ from its electoral catastrophe. New policies would be announced with full conference fanfare to win back those who had flocked to Labour in record numbers, especially the young. Internal divisions on Brexit would be squashed. And the Prime Minister, having humbly apologised for leading her party into such a pickle, would reassert her authority and demonstrate the leadership everyone agreed was needed to transform not only her party’s but also the country’s hopes.
But the conference did not follow the script. Instead, coverage of it was dominated by the increasingly rebellious antics of her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, seemingly willing to do or say anything to provoke her to sack him and so promote his own leadership ambitions. New policy proposals, intended to demonstrate renewed purpose and resolve, were either passed over as unworthy of much attention or dismissed as falling hopelessly short of what is required to tackle the problems they were supposed to address. And then the conference ended with the prime minister suffering a choking fit and being handed a P45 by an intruder who had managed to evade a supposedly impregnable security cordon. Labour must now imagine God is a Corbynite.
The sympathy which this ordeal elicited for Mrs May from her supportive audience of party members will no doubt find echo among thousands of fair-minded, kind-hearted people around the country who can easily recognise ordinary human misfortune when they see it. But in politics image is almost everything, especially when it seems to confirm an impression that has already taken hold. And the possibly mortal danger for Mrs May is that it will do just that.
For the impression of Theresa May that has gained traction since the electoral shock of June is of a prime minister who is no longer in control. She is dependent on a party of northern Irish Protestants to keep her party in power. She is dependent on backbenchers in her own party, avidly watching every move she makes on Brexit, to keep her as its leader. She is seen as too weak to stop her senior ministers bickering in public about what Brexit should mean and as lacking the guts to sack her freelancing foreign secretary whom few of his colleagues bother to defend and many privately regard as a disgrace.
Even before her speaking ordeal on Wednesday, Janan Ganesh, the Financial Times’s political commentator, wrote of her ‘masochist’s suffering’. ‘Your job is never easier,’ he wrote, ‘your colleagues never kinder, your worries never more trivial, than when you imagine life as Theresa May.’
The Prime Minister insists that a leader’s mettle is tested most when adversity is greatest. Part of her reputation for being what Kenneth Clarke called ‘a bloody difficult woman’ was gained by her dogged determination to stick to her guns come what may, and to refuse to give in. The question is whether it is in her party’s and the country’s interest for her to be given another chance to prove that mettle or whether she should be given a real P45 by her party.
Those who think she must stay argue that even if there were no other grounds to support her, she needs backing because the alternative is too awful to contemplate. That alternative involves a bloody leadership election that would divide the party even further and turn what they now regard as a serious risk that Jeremy Corbyn could become prime minister into a racing certainty. And all the while the Brexit clock would be ticking making the chances of clinching a decent deal recede over the horizon. Ditching her now, they say, is in neither the party’s nor the country’s interests.
But over all such arguments will hang the question: after having endured so much, has Theresa May still got it in her to rescue her premiership and her party? And should she, or shouldn’t she, be given the chance?
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