May has become the hologram prime minister
With little room for manoeuvre over her reshuffle, the PM is just a projection of the ambitions of different Tory tribes.
A few weeks ago Labour was mocked over its plan to project holograms of Jeremy Corbyn across the country for a party conference rally, but the truth is that Theresa May has turned into the hologram prime minister. Instead of being a leader of substance, she is now just a projection of other people’s ambitions, ideologies and fantasies. As one former cabinet minister puts it: “Everyone is putting their own interpretation on to her.”
Without a solid presence, the Tory leader is at the mercy of those with the power to switch her on or off. Grant Shapps, the former party chairman who was outed as a plotter by the Conservative whips at the weekend, is the least of her worries. Many of those MPs and ministers who were quick to rubbish him in public are privately as dismayed as he is about their leader’s performance.
Yesterday, Bernard Jenkin, the Eurosceptic MP, told the Today programme on Radio 4 that the prime minister would be “cheered to the echo” in the House of Commons if she returned from the European Council meeting next week and declared “I’ve had enough of this”. The implication was that she will be booed out of office by Brexit-supporting MPs if she makes any more concessions to the EU. For now it suits the different Conservative factions to keep their leader in place because they fear a successor would be harder to manipulate, but they will be quick to pull the plug on her if things do not go their way.
If she doesn’t move Boris in any reshuffle she will be in trouble
Mrs May is being urged to carry out a cabinet reshuffle to assert her authority; but again everyone is trying to impose their own will on her. The pro-European wing of the Conservative Party wants Boris Johnson to be fired, while the Brexiteers are insisting it is Philip Hammond who must go. One former cabinet minister says the prime minister’s room for manoeuvre is limited by the need to maintain political balance. “The reshuffle is the last shot in her locker but she can’t really sack or move Boris Johnson without doing the same to Philip Hammond because he’s behaving in exactly the same way, and even a strong prime minister would think twice about taking on both the foreign secretary and the chancellor at the same time.” It feels as if Mrs May is the victim rather than perpetrator of power.
I am told that plans for a reshuffle have been discussed extensively in No 10 and opinion in the prime minister’s top team is moving towards offering Mr Johnson another cabinet job, and if he turns it down telling him to leave the government. “I think if it came down to a choice between the chancellor or the foreign secretary she would be closer to the chancellor,” says one Downing Street insider. “That’s where the view is coalescing. If she has a reshuffle and doesn’t move Boris she will be in trouble because the rest of the cabinet want him moved. It would be an incredible sign of weakness not to do anything. Everyone has lost patience with him and not to deal with that would be problematic from a cabinet point of view. This is now a test.”
Having tolerated the foreign secretary’s blatant positioning on Brexit ahead of the Tory party conference, the prime minister is said to have been furious about his comments on Libya, in which he suggested that Sirte could be a great tourist destination, once the “dead bodies” were removed. Those familiar with her thinking say that is a “big part” of the current calculations. “There’s a way to do the job and a way not to do it,” says one ally. “She wants a slightly safer pair of hands as foreign secretary. She is completely exasperated with Boris about pretty much everything he has done recently. She’s got to stamp her personality on things.”
This may be true but the personality politics of reshuffle speculation is a proxy for the unresolved battle of ideas in the cabinet about the future of the UK after Brexit. The foreign secretary wants to create a buccaneering, free market “global Britain”, liberated from the shackles of Brussels, while the chancellor favours maintaining as close links as possible with the EU to minimise the economic disruption. The prime minister seems unwilling or unable to choose between these apparently irreconcilable positions.
This leaves the country in the worst possible position to get a good deal with the EU. Not only do the other European leaders have no idea what the prime minister is setting out to achieve, they are also unsure whether she will still be in office in a few months’ time.
Brexit is not something she’d have chosen or cares passionately about
Perhaps the fundamental flaw in Mrs May’s premiership is that this vicar’s daughter has inherited a mission for her time in power but it is not one that she really believes in. Although she sees it as her duty to deliver Brexit, because the people voted for it, she must still in her heart of hearts fear, as she argued during the referendum campaign, that it will put the economy and security at risk. I am struck by the number of Remain-supporting MPs, including ministers, who admit privately that they worry they are driving through a policy that is against the national interest yet feel powerless to stop it.
I wonder if the prime minister, who has great personal integrity, has a similar moral dilemma. Even if she does not agonise about the route she is leading the country down, this is not the cause she came into politics to fight. David Davis, the Brexit secretary, has a map of 18th-century Europe on his office wall, a memento of the period when Britain was still an imperial power, but Mrs May has a framed copy of the speech she made on the steps of No 10 when she became prime minister. It is tackling the “burning injustices” in society that really motivates her, not “taking back control” from Brussels.
Today, No 10 is publishing a comprehensive audit of racial disparities in the public services which will show shocking gaps in the outcomes for different ethnic groups. It has been a huge undertaking, impressively delivered by the civil service and personally forced through by the prime minister in an attempt to identify unfairness. Yet the tragedy for Mrs May is that there will be little political energy for righting such wrongs over the next few years.
“At any other time she might have been a huge social reforming prime minister but the core problem is that she’s got to deal with Brexit, not something that she would have chosen or cares passionately about,” says one senior Tory who has worked closely with her. “Somewhere between those two things you lose empathy and definition and then you become a hologram.” That is a dangerous identity for a leader to have.