The actions of Theresa May this week have been so personally harmful, so obviously self-destructive, that it has become clear her days as PM are numbered.
The behaviour of Number 10, and the behaviour of May’s allies are not only playing right into the hands of her primary opponent Boris Johnson, but are sending the PM on a collision course that could see the death of her political career. It has seemed certain for a long time that Theresa May would face catastrophe over the Chequers proposal, but I doubt anyone predicted she would be the one hammering the final nails into her own coffin.
May and her team have garnered more publicity for Boris than he could ever have achieved on his own, essentially running his publicity campaign for him. The primary example of this being the outrage that May’s team directed at Boris for his comments in a column in last week’s Mail on Sunday.
In the piece, Boris wrote: “We have wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution – and handed the detonator to Michel Barnier.”
Many of May’s allies snapped at the bait that Boris dangled in front of them, feigning offence at his use of graphic metaphor.
An official spokesperson for Number 10 said: “This is not the language that the Prime Minister would choose to use.”
Alistair Burt MP said: “There is no justification for such an outrageous, inappropriate and hurtful analogy. If we don’t stop this extraordinary use of language over Brexit, our country might never heal.”
And Sir Alan Duncan MP said: “This marks one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics. I’m sorry, but this is the political end of Boris Johnson. If it isn’t now, I will make sure it is later.”
It is interesting, however, that there wasn’t such outrage when David Cameron said that Brexit would “put a bomb under our economy”.
But, blatant hypocrisy aside, they all failed to realise that this was an obvious dead cat strategy from Boris. Johnson used a purposefully striking metaphor to divert attention away from his personal life and divorce, and direct attention towards his harsh views on the Chequers proposal. This is a tactic one should expect from Boris Johnson, yet astoundingly it’s a tactic that May’s allies apparently didn’t foresee, resulting in them helping Boris’s anti-Chequers views gain mass media coverage.
It also demonstrates their fatal misunderstanding of Boris’ appeal. They seem to assume that voters would look less favourably on him if they expose his vibrant rhetoric, whereas in actuality the complete opposite is true.
A poll of conservative members by Conservative Home last week showed that Boris’ popularity increased significantly after his controversial burka comments in The Telegraph in August. The entire reason Boris is so popular amongst voters and Tory members is precisely because of his bold personality and flowery language.
So, when May’s allies broadcast their faux outrage over his comments like this, they’re doing nothing but shining a light on what the public view as Boris’ virtues, not his flaws.
There was another controversy surrounding Boris this weekend that allowed for a second own-goal for Team Theresa. A leaked government dossier - dubbed the ‘war book’ - was leaked to the press on Sunday. The 4,000-word dossier was compiled by a member of Theresa May’s team during the 2016 leadership election and contains a long list of allegations about Johnson’s personal life, including sexual affairs and drug use.
This dossier was either carelessly leaked by May’s team in an ill-judged attempt to damage Boris’ public reputation, or it was leaked by a member of Boris’ own team to make May look bad.
Either way, it has not turned out well for May. If it was leaked by May’s team it was shockingly short-sighted, as there was not a single fact in the entire document that the public wasn’t already completely aware of. For example, the idea that Boris’ cocaine use would damage his public reputation is quite laughable considering the man himself literally admitted to it on Have I Got News For You.
Ross Thompson MP accused Number 10 of attempting to “smear” Johnson, describing it as “gutter politics”. And from what I’ve seen on Twitter and in person, the British public tends to agree.
There’s one major conclusion that we can draw from May’s team floundering like this: she’s been shaken. May is so focused on what she’s running away from that she isn’t even looking at what she’s running into. This is what’s caused the long list of fumbles and blunders that we’ve seen over the last week alone.
By focusing on opposing Boris rather than delivering Brexit, she is cleaving divisions within her party that will inevitably lead to her Chequers proposal falling flat. Steve Baker MP confirmed on Tuesday that nearly 80 Tory MPs have decided to oppose her chequers deal, which is easily enough to stop it getting through the Commons.
Rather than opening up a dialogue with these disgruntled MPs, May has made it very clear that she won’t accept any of their advice. This is causing her further problems as it’s forcing these disgruntled MPs to rally around Boris. She has given them no alternative.
Every action May takes seems to work very much in Boris’ favour, bringing him greater publicity, damaging her own reputation, and widening divisions within her party. As grand political strategies go, this is possibly the most self-destructive strategy I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.