On the morning after the election, it was generally believed that Theresa May would either be departing immediately or would by now, at the beginning of the Conservative Party Conference, be preparing to hand over to a successor.
And yet as Prime Minister she remains, strong enough to claim she will fight the next election. In reality, Tory prudence is all that is keeping her in office – so dumbfounded was the party by the election result that, for now at least, keeping mum is the safest option. Replacing her would lead to calls for another general election, which even the Tories know would do nothing to stabilise the country’s predicament.
I think it was Matthew Paris who said after the election that the British people knew when they were being used. Theresa May showed nothing but contempt for the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which despite its flaws, was designed to stop figures such as her from opportunistically exploiting some eye-watering opinion polls.
And yet even after Nemesis swooped down to crush her Hubris (and take her majority), the Prime Minister continued to hijack Britain’s constitutional conventions in order to save her own skin. The grubby little deal with the Democratic Unionists has jeopardised the peace process, as we already know, but it now emerges that it was announced before it had actually been agreed, enraging Buckingham Palace, as Tim Shipman reveals in today’s Sunday Times. It’s nice to know that Her Majesty still has some respect for British democracy, even if her latest Prime Minister does not.
May’s speech outside Downing Street on the afternoon of 9 June set the tone for the coming months, completely lacking in contrition, not just for the Conservative candidates who lost out, but for the shambolic way in which the country is being run.
Possible future Tory leader Ruth Davidson declared that a second Scottish independence referendum was ‘dead’ after the election, but it seems unlikely that the SNP will listen. They feel tantalisingly close to their dream of winning independence and know an intervention from a hated Tory Prime Minister can only help. Time is running out for them – there is unlikely to be a pro-independence majority after the next Scottish parliament election – but it is not difficult to imagine how a second vote could be lost by this shambolic Westminster government.
If the UK does not fracture under May’s watch, then she may instead have as her legacy the handing over of its governance to Jeremy Corbyn, a man once thought by many, including the present writer, to be unimaginable as Prime Minister. He too should have resigned after the election, also only surviving because of the weird way in which expectations did not meet reality.
While I grudgingly admit that the man has ‘changed’ politics, I would still refuse to say it is for the better. For evidence you only need to look at the disgrace of his party’s conference last week – with the banana republic traits of leader worship, refusal to debate issues openly, and the widespread belief that the untrue is true; that Labour, in other words, won the election.
May’s inability to slaughter Corbyn must worry all those who harbour concerns about his convictions and his character. This extremely mendacious figure, with his friends on the sectarian left and his admiration for foreign despots, has now been endorsed by nearly thirteen million British voters, many of them well intentioned, but who would nonetheless install him as Prime Minister without a thought for the consequences.
Even for those wary of Corbyn, it is hard not to understand why he looks preferable to this strange, crippled ruin of a government, headed by a woman so weak she cannot fire her most notorious minister, who reveals his contempt for the workings of government by making nonsense of the idea of cabinet responsibility. Boris Johnson is allowed to launch his own Brexit boat, deliberately complicating the Brussels negotiations, in order to paddle towards his last chance of being Prime Minister, and his boss has no power to restrain him.
The leadership issue is inevitably going to haunt this conference so there seems little point in trying to ignore it. When May became Prime Minister I felt some naïve relief, not just that the country had avoided Andrea Leadsom, but because May herself seemed serious and mature. Her complete capitulation to populism got its reward at the election, hopefully teaching the Tories to avoid picking another demagogue like Johnson, or equally unsuitable creeps like Jacob-Rees Mogg.
They are also aware that something ‘needs to be done’ to address the youth vote, as evidenced by May’s pre-conference headline-grabber on tuition fees. Perhaps this means those who have been indulged too long, such as Johnson, can be skipped in favour of someone from the next generation of leadership hopefuls. Yet perhaps I am hoping for too much from a party not widely regarded for its common sense.
In the space of just over a year, then, Theresa May has managed to ravage the Conservative Party at a time when Britain, as she was always fond of saying, needs strong leadership. This wasn’t just a soundbite – to implement the hugely complicated policy of leaving the EU, the country needs a government with unity and coherence. It won’t get it from the Tories, and partly thanks to their own ineptitude, there are no decent alternatives around. As they gather in Manchester, it is time to treat May and her party with the same contempt they evidently hold for us.