May’s appeasement will just embolden Boris
The foreign secretary is exploiting a power vacuum brought about by the PM’s failure to provide leadership or vision
At the start of his new novel, Munich, Robert Harris quotes the historian FW Maitland: “We should always be aware that what now lies in the past once lay in the future.” The book, set in the weeks running up to the signing of Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 agreement with Adolf Hitler, makes the point that politicians may not have the benefit of hindsight but they do have the power to shape events.
Nicky Morgan, the former cabinet minister and Conservative chairwoman of the Treasury select committee, compares Theresa May’s handling of the Tory Eurosceptics to “appeasement” in the 1930s. Party leaders have, she told me, spent 20 years pandering to Conservative right-wingers who will “never be satisfied”, in an attempt to avoid a war. The prime minister’s bigger problem is that she seems unable or unwilling to influence the world around her. There is little chance she will be able to declare “peace for our time” in the Tory party or the country any time soon. Shorn of authority and devoid of ideas after a disastrous election campaign, she is not in control of the present, let alone the future
A leader should be the sun around which all the planets circle in an ordered political universe. The Tory solar system has gone into a tailspin because the prime minister exerts no gravitational pull on those around her. Even in the week of her own party conference, she does not have the weight to drag the cabinet into her orbit. Boris Johnson, David Davis, Philip Hammond and Liam Fox are all spiralling off in different directions, while Ruth Davidson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are the satellites twinkling in the night sky.
The foreign secretary sends regular rockets up to space just for fun but the prime minister dare not sack him. “Boris thinks he would make a better prime minister than Theresa and there are limits on the extent that he’s going to be fettered when she is so weak,” says one senior Tory MP who supported him for the leadership last year. “Collective responsibility has been replaced by the desire for authenticity.”
There has been an extraordinary shift in the balance of power in the Conservative Party. Normally MPs depend on their leader for promotion but now Mrs May’s fate lies in the hands of her backbenchers. At the Conservative Home party on Sunday night, the prime minister had to stand by as Lord Ashcroft, the party’s former deputy chairman, pointedly praised the “strong and stable” leadership of Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, who would be responsible for compiling a list of rebels who wanted their leader to go. It was completely humiliating. “Graham Brady is now the prime minister’s chief jailer,” says one MP. “He is a Brexiteer so he’s saying to her, so long as you stay true to the flame of Euroscepticism we will make sure no one moves against you.” The dark matter of Downing Street goes way beyond Brexit, however. With the Tory election manifesto now almost entirely ditched, there is a gaping black hole where the party’s policies should be. A few months ago Mrs May was promising to make a priority of fixing the crisis in social care, now she’s moved on to student finance, but on neither issue does she have a credible reform to offer the voters
This week’s promise to freeze university tuition fees, saving graduates a measly £360 a year, simply highlighted a problem without offering a solution. The pledge to boost the Help to Buy scheme risks raising house prices by increasing demand while doing nothing to improve supply. Instead of championing distinctive Conservative ideas, Mrs May is shaking the magic money tree to offer “Labour-lite” policies that have little chance of breaking through. Meanwhile a prime minister who promised to tackle “burning injustices” is presiding over the chaotic implementation of a universal credit system that has left some of the poorest families in the country unable to pay their rent
Senior Conservatives are in despair. “What does she want to do with power?” says one MP. “The truth is I don’t think she knows herself.” Another party grandee describes Mrs May as an “empty vessel” who was filled with reforming zeal by Nick Timothy when he was her chief of staff, but has few ideas of her own now that he has gone. One regular visitor to Downing Street observes that “all the radicals have left”. The civil service is resurgent, with permanent secretaries boasting privately that they have got their ministers under control. In the absence of political direction at the top, Sir Jeremy Heywood is exerting an iron grip over No 10, on everything from Brexit to the public services. One senior Tory was shocked to hear Damian Green, the prime minister’s de facto deputy, expressing delight that he gets to see the cabinet secretary “almost” every day. “The civil service is brutally exploiting the vacuum at the top,” says a Conservative peer. A younger generation of Tory MPs is fizzing with energy and ideas, but Mrs May lacks the confidence to promote them. “We are told we have to do our time and work our way up through the ranks,” says one. “It’s so frustrating to sit by and watch the older generation mess it up.”
The Conservatives are beset by ideological uncertainty, unsettled by the surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn and unsure how to respond to it, yet their leader is unable to define what her party is for. Some Tories want to mount a passionate and unapologetic defence of freemarket economics, others argue that new controls are needed on “irresponsible” capitalism in response to the financial crash. Some insist the Conservatives must remain the party of low taxes, others like Oliver Letwin, David Cameron’s former policy chief, say they should support tax rises to pay for public spending on new challenges such as social care.
On this divide, as on so much else, Mrs May remains unconstructively ambiguous. “People are beginning to realise there’s an existential crisis,” says one veteran MP. “For the first time in my life the party has less than 100,000 members and the average age is over 70. There’s nothing that says the Tory party has to survive. Some people have this great sense of entitlement that we run the country better than the ideologues but we have succumbed to ideology on Europe.”
The world is in flux. The ideological, economic and diplomatic certainties of the past have evaporated for now at least. What now lies in the past once lay in the future but Mrs May is failing catastrophically to seize her chance to shape events.