Sex scandals are speeding May to an early exit
With crises mounting and a PM who has used up all of her political lives, Tory thoughts are turning to Amber Rudd
Even sex scandals, apparently so timeless, are products of their age. The Profumo affair had the Cold War as its backdrop: what made it so toxic was that Christine Keeler had been involved with both the secretary of state for war and a Soviet naval attaché. The furore over “sleaze” in the 1990s was a reaction to John Major’s “back to basics” campaign for traditional family values which left the Tories open to accusations of hypocrisy when ministers were caught in a string of compromising positions.
The current wave of sexual harassment allegations is of its time because it is about power as much as sex. Like the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, this is a popular revolt against an elite that has behaved for too long as if it is above the rules. It was no coincidence that Jane Merrick, the journalist who claimed at the weekend that she had been lunged at as a young reporter by Sir Michael Fallon, said she had decided to go public because — in an echo of the Leave campaign slogan — she wanted to “take back control”.
Theresa May is trying to do just that. Yesterday she called for a “new culture of respect” in public life as she met other party leaders to discuss how to tackle misconduct in the House of Commons. Unlike Gordon Brown, who looked flat-footed when the MPs’ expenses scandal broke, the prime minister has acted swiftly and ruthlessly to deal with Tories accused of misconduct.
But the chaos that results from this scandal will surely hasten the departure of a prime minister who is already presiding over a party split from top to bottom over Europe and agovernment that is, as Norman Lamont said of John Major, “in office but not in power”. Although the blizzard of allegations covers all the political parties, it is the Conservatives who will ultimately be most damaged by them. The party that is in government is expected to live up to the responsibilities of that position. It is far more embarrassing to lose a defence secretary than it is to have to suspend a backbench opposition MP.
Everything is out of control and there’s no proper leadership
The torrent of reports — including a claim yesterday from a former Conservative activist that her complaints about an alleged rape by an employee of a Tory MP were ignored — also reinforce the voters’ worst image of the Tories as the “nasty party”, out of touch with the modern world. It’s almost 20 years since David Willetts said the Conservatives needed to pass the “Bridget Jones test” and stop giving the impression that they were, in the words of Helen Fielding’s creation, “braying bossy men having affairs with everyone shag shag shag left right and centre and going to the Ritz in Paris then telling all the presenters off on the Today programme”. Apparently little has changed. After all the decontamination strategies deployed by David Cameron the Tories seem unable to avoid returning to their old tainted brand.
“It’s much worse for us,” says one Conservative MP. “This just confirms the stereotype. Everything is out of control and there’s no proper leadership.”
Before the Tory conference, the plotters were saying that the prime minister was “two crises away” from being deposed. After her calamitous speech, during which she lost her voice along with part of her stage set, they were declaring she was one disaster away from a leadership challenge. Now she has no political lives left, yet the crises are piling up by the day. Mrs May is so short of allies that at a time when party management is more important than ever she felt the need to move her chief whip Gavin Williamson and his tarantula to her side as defence secretary in a reshuffle that has infuriated almost everyone on the Conservative benches.
Although most MPs had convinced themselves that their leader would struggle on until after the Brexit negotiations in 2019, now a growing number are beginning to question once again whether she can survive that long. According to one MP, “Grant Shapps [the ringleader of the last failed coup] has been very busy and all sorts of people are saying to him: how many more names do you need?” The budget in two weeks’ time is being described as the prime minister’s last chance to seize back the political agenda. One former minister says: “I’m starting to think she’s got to go because the damage that’s now being caused is so profound. I’m in a state of despair.”
The budget is being seen as her last chance to seize the agenda
The calculations for choosing Mrs May’s successor are also shifting. Until now I assumed that, if the Tory leader went in the middle of the EU negotiations, David Davis, the Brexit secretary, would take her place. But in the current climate, can the Tories really choose as prime minister a man who once had his female supporters parading around in T-shirts with “It’s DD for me” emblazoned across their chests? Boris Johnson is widely regarded as a diplomatic disaster zone, most recently over his comments about a British woman jailed in Iran. Liam Fox has already resigned once for breaking the ministerial code by letting his best man into defence meetings and, although he denies any impropriety, Damian Green may no longer be seen as a “safe pair of hands”. As Philip Hammond has alienated so many colleagues with his budget blunders, there is a growing feeling on the Tory benches that it is time to move on from “grey beards” who have not always been all that wise.
The bookies have already slashed the odds of Andrea Leadsom getting the top job after she led the charge against Sir Michael Fallon’s “lewd” behaviour, which he denies, but there are MPs who would walk across hot coals to stop her becoming prime minister. Priti Patel, once seen as a contender, has been forced to apologise over unauthorised meetings she held while on holiday in Israel.
Ruth Davidson, leader of the party in Scotland and the Tories’ best hope, could not make the transition to Westminster if there is a leadership contest in the next year. So Amber Rudd is the one to watch. At the weekend, she was courageous and coherent in articulating the need for a “clear-out” at Westminster. As home secretary she has gained valuable experience for the top job. The Brexiteers will hate the idea of another Remainer at No 10 but the challenge for the Tories now is to stop fighting ideological battles and prove they understand the modern world.
“Amber could win with the party in the country,” says one MP. “The activists and councillors realise things are so desperate we need a fresh face. The question is does the parliamentary party realise the parlous state we are in?”