08 March 2018
Sell May and go away?
By J R Thomas
No, the heading is not a mess up by the titles editor; nor is this a sheet of investment advice. Though maybe, in the broadest sense, it is. What is it about 10 Downing Street that so attracts politicians? One can understand the lure of the White House to the ambitious American politico; even the most reviled gets grudging respect as leader of the free world, to say nothing of unlimited use of Airforce One (and Two) and a procession of limos to take the elevated one to KFC. The President of the French has the best address in Paris and no trouble with the French news media; the Italian President gets the Palazzo del Quirinal, a similar one in Naples, and a country palace in Umbria – it almost makes up for having no power. But Mrs May – she gets a small flat in a terraced house in central London and a draughty Elizabethan manor facing north in the Chiltern Hills; and more invective than any lady should ever have to contemplate.
Why does she do it? Why would anybody put up with that stuff? After the disaster of the June 2017 election the initial reaction of Theresa’s loyal party was that the lady should be chucked down the rubbish chute; hastily followed by second thoughts that keeping her in post as a ready sacrifice might help when things got sticky and somebody to blame was needed. Yet, to a Prime Minister of bruised but continuing ambition that might have seemed a god-sent opportunity. Secure in office, at least for a while, he, or she (let’s say “she”) could surely build a popular creed of Mayism, a populist conservative philosophy that would sketch out some sunny sunlit United Kingdom uplands, a new shiny world of all the best new shiny worlds. The media would praise, the party unite, and the electorate would rise and follow, even unto second and third terms. And even better, for Mrs May (for indeed it is she) – politics, like life, often being subject to an element of luck, she has one big piece of luck – who sits in the Commons right opposite her, stroking his beard? (Drum roll…) Jeremy Corbyn.
For all sorts of reasons Mr Corbyn should be Theresa’s lucky charm. In spite of his appeal to the young and hip he terrifies a sizeable slice of the electorate (and of Tory backbenchers) who recall the economic effects of previous Labour administrations. He is bumbling, not very good on figures, openly espousing as splendid examples of socialism-in-action disaster zones such as Venezuela. His past and present is littered with support for dubious causes and he is sufficiently naïve not to recognise Czech spies when they invite themselves for tea. Mrs May does not even need to point up all this; the man and his friends do it for themselves. All that Mrs M has to do is to show that a Conservative future is kinder, brighter, and cheaper. That requires energy, a sense of vision, an ability to use words to sketch dreams; wit can help but is not essential. Theresa, it has to be said, does not show outstanding abilities in these areas, but equally there is no evidence that she hasn’t got them when required. (Ambitious politicians tend to be able produce what is necessary when required. Boris indeed can produce at any time and even when not required.)
But what that sort of leadership also needs is a genuine sense of where the speaker would like the country to go, and one that will convince and enthuse the electorate. Mrs Thatcher had a nineteenth century liberal sense of a free people, combined with a more traditionally Tory view of conservative behaviour and Conservative values. It was in many ways a curious combination, certainly Mr Gladstone would have found it so, but the electorate went for it happily enough. Compare and contrast with Edward Heath, who in 1970 articulated a similar vision but never sounded as though he believed it (or indeed anything very much); it was convincing enough to win him a surprise victory in the election, but when the going got tough Ted abandoned it and at the first opportunity the electorate abandoned him.
Mrs May needs now to pull some compelling visions out of her handbag, preferably ones she believes in, and give some intellectual resilience to them. If she can convince some of her jollier ministers that she has some good ideas, and induce enthusiastic support, get the media thinking that there is life in the lady, then she just might find herself aboard a bandwagon which retains her as helmsman. After all, if Mr Corbyn can sell so convincingly a load of old soap that is known not to wash, how much better Mrs May should be able to do so with a new bubbly version.
Plus there would be another benefit, not to be underestimated. Distracting the public with new and exciting ideas might take the emphasis off the endless pushing and shoving on Brexit. Yes, it is probably the key issue of the 21st century, and yes, it needs some remarkable dexterity to produce a result that will, if not please everybody, at least cause minimal offence. Magic, though, is often best performed when the audience is looking the other way. So, distract them.
Mrs May can do the delivery when she wants to rise to it; her speech last Friday at the Guildhall was a clever and skilled exposition of what Brexit will mean and how it will be done, without getting her heels caught in gratings of detail. For about twenty four hours she was praised for speaking wisely and clearly – even M. Barnier, going dangerously off-message, said it was helpful. Then, from the distant swamp where old ministers gurgle and stamp and roar, came the chorus we all know. Major, Blair, and Heseltine spoke, if not with one voice, certainly with one noise, that being that the Project is being destroyed and they don’t like it. But they are yesterday’s voice, seen among the public (in order) as tanned and venal, an amiable loser, and forgotten (who?); alas maybe that it should be so but we live in unforgiving times. The Iron Lady would have swung the handbag and dealt with them. Mrs May does not do that sort of thing, though. Instead she dangerously almost got distracted by a proxy argument over what Boris might or might not have said about the Irish border, via a leak which seems to have come rather traceably from her own support office.
But even so, the lady seems to have the initiative at the moment. The trick will be to keep it, and that means not getting too drawn into Mr Trump’s latest wheeze, to start a trade war. That is a battle that nobody can win, but Mrs M could lose.
Time, Prime Minister, to seize the initiative. Time to dream some new dreams, startle the public with your originality and confident imaginative grasp of new highways. Take a leaf (a modest one please) out of President Macron’s book and keep running faster than anybody else. Don’t just seize the initiative, set fire to it and sprint. Mrs May, if she recognises it, is in many ways in a better place than she has been since June last year. The game is still afoot; go play it.