Every day that Theresa May remains in office is another day that the Conservative Party is idling in neutral, failing to retool and re-energise itself to take on Jeremy Corbyn’s marauding socialists
Tim Montgomerie, writing in the Evening Standard, explains quite comprehensively why there is only downside and no upside to keeping Theresa May in 10 Downing Street a moment longer than it will take the Conservatives to organise a leadership contest to replace her.
Tory MPs, returning in a shell-shocked daze to Westminster for this week’s low-fat, low-content Queen’s Speech, must quickly recognise that Theresa May is as finished as Mrs Clinton. Every day she remains in charge is a wasted day. Every day the country inches closer to an election for which Jeremy Corbyn will have added more activists to his impressive turnout machine. Equally, the Conservatives will have one less day to rebuild their own offering and operation.
Mrs May’s flat-footed response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy was not just further proof she’s not that good at politics. It was another moment of not rising to the occasion as a leader with vision would do. The horrific burning alive of largely poor and marginalised people was — like 2008’s crash — another reminder of unjustifiable vulnerabilities at the bottom of society and inadequate responsibility from those at the top.
Yes. This blog has noted the number of commentators who leapt to the prime minister’s defence in terms of her out-of-step public response to the horrific Grenfell Tower fire last week. A significant minority seem to have convinced themselves that the prime minister’s excessive reserve terror at the thought of interaction with the public is somehow an admirable thing, the epitome of British stoicism, rather than further dismal evidence of Theresa May’s inability to lead.
These claims dismiss critics of Theresa May as reactionaries who just want to see the prime minister emote for the cameras and hug a few of the survivors, but this dismissive attitude completely misses the point. I don’t think anybody in Britain had any great desire to see the prime minister weeping with the Grenfell Tower victims on the evening news bulletins. They did, however, expect her to show up, even if it was politically awkward, just as American political leaders show solidarity with disaster victims in the United States and French political leaders in the aftermath of terror atrocities in France. This is not an unreasonable, irrational demand. It is Leadership 101, and Theresa May has been failing the test in manifold ways since well before the general election.
The most fitting memorial to those who perished [in the Grenfell Tower fire] is not to comfort the bereaved as all half-decent societies would. The best way of honouring the dead would be to deliver the scale of house-building that Conservative PMs such as Churchill and Macmillan championed but which an ideologically rigid Thatcherite dogma has since discouraged. For good measure, a government building more homes in the South would also significantly expand infrastructure in the North. The everyday so-called current government spending still needs trimming but leaving the next generation with inadequate roads, railways and broadband is just as irresponsible as leaving them up to their necks in debt.
I’d put believing that Elvis Presley is still alive on equal par with the claim that Mrs May could launch this agenda or something similar. Despite the words she uttered in Downing Street after first becoming PM she has done nothing of consequence for communities suffering most from the multigeddon of globalisation, open borders, automation and the collapse of the working-class family.
Rather than overhauling a threadbare party machine that helped lose a 20 per cent opinion poll lead, she has reappointed her Tory chairman. Those thinking the days of treating her Cabinet with disdain are over should look at her careless loss of two of the Brexit department’s four key ministers last weekend, a week before today’s starting gun for talks.
Also true. While this blog has focused on the need for conservatives to start transmitting a positive, optimistic message and defence of their worldview if they want to stand a chance of competing with the parties of the Left for the youth vote, good messaging alone is not enough. And while acts of pandering and voter bribery – such as matching Labour’s pledge for free university tuition – are rightfully unacceptable to conservatives, it should not be impossible for the Tories to recognise that their current housing policy (or lack thereof) is a punch in the gut to any young person not fortunate enough to inherit from their parents or be helped onto the housing ladder by them. Planning laws need to be urgently reviewed and liberalised. The Left wants to build council houses for all, so that everybody is dependent on the state for one more thing. Conservatives should counter with a bold proposal to expand the supply of private housing for rent and purchase.
Montgomerie is also right to criticise the party machine. CCHQ has presided over the near-total gutting of the party in recent years, from the winding up of the terminally dysfunctional Conservative Future youth movement to the neutering of the constituency associations and the megalomaniacal insistence of central control over candidate selection so as to ensure the continuance of the current system of patronage and nepotism which gave us such wonderful “rising stars” as Ben Gummer. Theresa May is not responsible for the party machine that she inherited when she became prime minister last year, but neither has she shown the slightest interest in revamping the party and opening it up to outside talent. The necessary change will not come so long as she remains leader.
Montgomerie’s conclusion is also strong:
A new PM and a contest necessary to establish who it should be will not be good for the nation’s immediate peace of mind or for business sentiment, but there are no easy options from where we are. What Britain does have is a two- to three-month window before September’s German elections. After that, Brexit negotiations will be fast and furious.
The Tories need a contest thorough enough to identify a team as much as a leader, and an agenda for social renewal as much as for Brexit. With both established, there is a real chance of stopping the momentum building behind Jeremy Corbyn — and it must be stopped. His views on tax, state power and defence would enfeeble this country.
We must not underestimate Corbyn. Voters who yearn for change may well roll the dice if forced to choose between Corbyn and “the same old Tories”. If, after all, people can convince themselves that the moon landings were staged, they may even believe Corbyn is equipped for Britain’s highest office.
There is never a good time to instigate a divisive, ugly leadership election campaign between general elections, but far better that Conservatives bite the bullet now than wait until a year into Brexit negotiations before swapping out the leader of the country. It’s bad enough to have to consider changing horses at the water’s edge of Brexit negotiations; changing horses mid-stream would only undermine the British negotiating position further.
And as Tim Montgomerie rightly says, a leadership contest is needed to identify not just a leader but also a team and a set of values – not just relating to Brexit – around which the party can coalesce and campaign. The 2017 general election campaign was a miserable affair in which Tories – led from the top by Theresa May – refused to make a bold, positive affirmation of free markets or other traditional conservative standards, instead portraying “austerity” and limits on the state as a necessary evil rather than as a potentially good thing in and of themselves.
The Tories were tricked into fighting on Labour’s turf (arguing about inequality) when they should instead have proudly made the case that conservative policies expand the pie for all while Jeremy Corbyn’s focus on equality of outcome promises only more equal slices of a rapidly diminishing national pie. Conservatives essentially went to fight in this general election only to discover that their leader had broken their best ideological weapon in advance of the battle. No wonder they lost ground against Jeremy Corbyn’s uplifting (if loopy and fiscally nonsensical) vision for Britain.
And then there is the elusive, undefinable sense of momentum. Whatever momentum Theresa May had when she took over from David Cameron, she has now squandered it all. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is on the march. Through her inept leadership and hopelessly prosecuted general election campaign, Theresa May literally gave 1970s style socialism a foothold back in our national politics, and raised the real risk that Corbyn could enter 10 Downing Street as prime minister if her shaky minority government were to fall. Prior to the election her aura of strength and stability was severely knocked by the multiple terror attacks on British soil, some of which exposed failings for which she was directly accountable as Home Secretary.
And now the Grenfell Tower disaster response has revealed the prime minister to be a shrunken, fearful and traumatised figure, clinging on day by day while colleagues openly worry about her mental state of mind. Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan between them have assumed the role of national Consoler-in-Chief, while Theresa May skulks in Downing Street and only meets with the survivors and bereaved relatives under duress. This might be partly excusable if she had organised a first-class disaster response plan a la Gordon Brown, but she didn’t. Instead there were days of chaos and confusion before Whitehall finally took over the response from Kensington & Chelsea council.
Rightly or wrongly – and the vast majority of criticism directed at Theresa may has been fully justified – the impression is of a prime minister in over her head, unable to regain her political footing and behaving in an entirely reactive way rather than giving the country the proactive leadership that it needs. There is no coming back from such a self-inflicted calamity. There is no PR job that can be done to repair the damage. And if Theresa May is hanging on in some desperate bid to burnish her legacy with a smattering of minor accomplishments before her inevitable removal then she is not only deluding herself but also putting herself before the Conservative Party, and party before the country.
So let’s bring on the contest. Let 48 Tory MPs submit their letters to the 1922 Committee and formally trigger a leadership challenge, forcing the prime minister’s resignation. There is no reason for us to continue to “bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of”. The undiscover’d country could hardly be any worse.
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