When Theresa May took control of the country in 2016, many didn’t expect her to last long. Brexit divisions would bring her down within six months, senior officials predicted. Somehow, though, Mrs May defied them. Each time the Government teeters on the brink of disaster, it pulls back. Mrs May, for all her flaws, has a mysterious ability to look stable for long periods. But it’s a mirage.
The reality is that the Prime Minister is now a Wizard of Oz figure. Every now and then, the curtain falls away and the appalling reality becomes apparent. Then, the Tories close ranks. “Pay no attention to that person behind the curtain!” they cry. And we all go back to normal. Well, I’m afraid that things aren’t normal, not by a long shot. This year, the Government has to conduct one of the most difficult negotiations in our history. It is not up to the job.
Talk to people at any level of the Conservative Party. You can ask MPs,
council leaders, party officials, local associations and you get the same description. There’s no direction. Nothing is happening. The operation is headless, clueless. What’s the public evidence of this? Well, just consider the terrible wounds inflicted on this Government with growing frequency. Many of them aren’t its fault when they first emerge, yet somehow, they “become” its fault.
Before the election, Mrs May largely managed to keep the curtain drawn. But the campaign exposed her. Since then, it’s been non-stop. There are the events that weren’t her fault yet which, because she failed to make the argument or couldn’t think on her feet, engulfed her and buoyed Labour: The London Bridge attack, Grenfell Tower, the NHS winter crunch, the Tory conference, sex scandals, Carillion, Worboys. Mrs May has had no answer to these events. She makes no interventions or arguments. She hopes, always, to muddle through.
There are the predictable, self-inflicted wounds. The insane decision to trigger Article 50 far too early, without any idea of what the Government wanted; the summer of briefing wars between cabinet ministers; the Commons defeat on the Withdrawal Bill; the predictable row over animal sentience (warnings of which Number 10 ignored); the ridiculous spectacle of Priti Patel’s plane ride; the pathetic, half-hearted policies announced at the Tory conference, over-briefed, as ever, and underwhelming.
And then there are the truly jaw-dropping moments of incompetence. The reshuffle, botched in every way – from the failure to challenge weeks of hyped-up speculation to the lack of basic personnel management that saw ministers refusing to take jobs. The result was a spectacular farce played out live before a waiting press corps.
Worse still was the Phase I Brexit agreement Mrs May signed before Christmas. Having spent the whole autumn blustering about red lines and failing to notice Ireland’s growing aggression, the Government was bounced into an agreement. It let expectations reach fever pitch, Mrs May went to Brussels and, at the last moment, was confronted by a fresh list of Irish demands. Instead of saying “no” and flying home – the only correct response – Mrs May rolled over and was immediately humiliated by the DUP’s “no”.
Ten days later, her decision to sign a document that, while not legally binding, is a total political surrender, was presented as a marvellous pre-Christmas victory. As one MP told me recently, in frustration: “We all went away at Christmas and forgot how s*** they are. But they’re living week to week. The public can smell it.” We need to remind ourselves of the failures, because if this tragicomedy continues, here’s what will happen.
The EU will set whatever terms it wants, knowing that Mrs May’s Brexit strategy amounts to taking the path of least resistance. If we are lucky, Brussels will put off the main points until after March next year, leaving the door open to a tolerable agreement under new leadership. However, given the scale of British impotence and the December capitulation over Ireland, it’s more likely they will push us hard.
Even as our Government prevaricates and complains, the unappetising options will emerge: become a vassal state, accepting EU rules across the board, or crash out without a deal. From everything we know so far, Mrs May is likely to pick option one. At that point, the Government will collapse. My guess is that this will happen in the autumn.
There’s a lazy logic to keeping Mrs May in power: this is a bad time for a three-month leadership contest; the Government needs to focus on negotiating Brexit; there is no anointed successor.
All of this is true, and yet I’m not convinced. If there’s no obvious successor, it’s because she will never allow one to emerge. The Tories’ next generation isn’t ready. Instead, there is now talk in Westminster of a three-way alliance between experienced heavy hitters Michael Gove, Amber Rudd and Jeremy Hunt. The only way to let them have it out is with a leadership contest.
The suggestion that this will take much-needed focus away from Brexit assumes that there is a strong focus on it at the moment. But there isn’t. The Government simply cannot negotiate Brexit under Mrs May because she’s not only incapable of presenting her own vision for the future; she cannot even preside over a vision hashed out by others. Now, bereft of leadership, ministers are blaming civil servants. But we all know that civil servants can’t do Brexit. It’s a political project. It demands a Government with a vision for the future, to which all its negotiating aims must be subject.
It requires the Cabinet to unite around this vision and get on a war footing, with briefings every morning and lines to take. It requires an ambitious campaign across Europe to sniff out sympathetic ears, supplying them with locally tailored material (how much will your local airport in France or factory in Germany lose?), explaining Britain’s case, waving carrots and sticks up and down the chain of political opinion.
Instead, we have the Wizard of Oz. We are sleepwalking into a hurricane. Every month that goes by, Britain’s situation gets weaker, bringing us closer to a total European capitulation and a Corbyn government. The Tories seem to think they can wait and then use Mrs May as a Brexit scapegoat. They are putting party before country and the public won’t buy it. If they won’t rip the curtain away now, Brussels will do it for them.