Arise Sir Stay and Dame Remain with OBEs for the In Crowd: David Cameron’s intended honours list, leaked to the Sunday Times, is the perfect symptom of the glowering post-referendum split haunting the Tory party after Brexit. It is the political equivalent of the Prussian army granting medals to its senior officers after being smashed by Napoleon at Jena — a gesture of pure defiance in the face of humiliation.
Yet more of Cameron’s urbane, diligent placemen and women are decorated. Cheekily, a mid-rank honour is suggested for Will Straw, Labour’s head of the remain campaign, to suggest inclusiveness and underline that remainers had the national interest at heart, whatever their tribal allegiance. Most tellingly, four present cabinet members who, while instinctively Eurosceptic, supported Cameron by backing Remain — namely Chancellor Philip Hammond, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, Leader of the Commons David Lidington and party chairman Patrick McLoughlin — are among the proposed new nobility. Thus the uneasy ghosts of the Cameron era will stalk British Prime Minister Theresa May’s ranks — and she will be reminded of the fact every time their designation appears on the TV screen or letterhead.
The audacious nature of the gesture should not be underestimated. Knighthoods have been doled out in modern times to those who have left senior political jobs — a reward for past deeds or donor favours, not those serving under a new master. True, Cameron may cite the Good Parliament of 1376, which sealed the presence of “knights and burgesses” in the Commons. Then, Sir Peter de la Mare conveyed complaints of over taxation to the greedy Lords.
In this case, a message is being sent that the Cameron era, while it came to a sticky end in terms of raw power, still has burgesses and knights who should not be underestimated by the May supremacy. At the same time, according to the leak, an OBE for an aide-cum-stylist to Samantha Cameron seems likely, while figures who served at the Cameron round table but opted to support Brexit are pointedly ignored. “Remarkably petty,” is the verdict of one such ex minister. Cameron is signalling that he knows this — and does not care.
But the new PM must pick up the pieces. She faces a feat of advanced political surfing after the summer’s brief respite from infighting. The Tory leader has a tiny majority to get her business through parliament, a finely balanced, mutually suspicious cabinet with manifold incompatible views about what Brexit should entail in detail. While the three Brexiteers — Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis — have major roles in the negotiation of Brexit Britain’s future dealings, May has ensured that she chairs the Brexit cabinet committee, the better to stamp on early signs of uppityness (No 10 was quick, for example, to quash a suggestion from Fox that the UK would be better off pursuing a free-trade deal than striving to remain in the EU-area customs union).
It is one thing for May to delay unceremoniously projects such as Hinkley Point, on the grounds that she is far less convinced than George Osborne of the wisdom of Chinese investors being involved in a project that affects long-term national security. Nonetheless, she must keep faith with the remnants of remain in her ranks, who opposed Brexit on the grounds of an undeniable risk to Britain’s economic well-being.
On that score, lest you were wondering what became of the last chancellor, he has been swiftly rebooting a life after No 11. Cameron, encountered shortly after the vote, spoke wryly about his position with a “c’est la vie” shrug that is trademark Dave — cheery, for better or worse, while Osborne has looked more personally stricken and anxious about the impact of the leave vote on his economic legacy.
But the latter is relatively young for an ousted chancellor and remains ambitious. He has, I gather, just been feted at an event in New York by Tina Brown, the great convenor of NY-LON — the London-New York linkage, and the nearest dowdy Brits get to the bi-coastal prominence of American elites.
Osborne’s allies murmur about a lecture series or broader academic stint in the US. He would follow the well-trodden routes of clever-but-bruised mid-career politicians. Ed Miliband hived himself off to Harvard in the wake of a clash with Ed Balls during the Blair-Brown era. David Miliband is in exile heading a refugee charity. Embattled liberal America will warm to Osborne’s free trade outlook. A transatlantic life is a good first move in the 12-step recovery programme for traumatised Tory modernisers.
Back in Britain, May is hunkered down with aides, planning ways of dealing with a split which is as much about legacy and outlook as it is about Europe. A senior MP just told me that he had voted remain, while sceptical of the EU’s blessings, because “this was war” — in other words, a conflict of generations, loyalties and dispositions, refracted through the prism of the vote. Pushing loyalists into the Lords (as he has done before and undoubtedly will in his last throw), is Cameron’s way of leaving a small cadre in place, like emigre royals, to remind his party of the truncated Dave and George regency.
May, by contrast, blends Tory traditions which are often at loggerheads. Fundamentally small-C conservative — witness the tinge of economic nationalism underlying her nuclear decision — she has also laid down change motifs over the years: the bold condemnation of the “nasty party” image and vocal support for gay marriage, and her bravest speech, attacking the moribund culture of parts of the police force.
Yes, calculation has surely played a part here, but so has raw instinct. Her long march through the institutions, from balancing factions in the late 1980s and early 1990s on Merton council, to the party chairmanship and the ever-fissiparous Home Office, finally enabled her to replace Sam Cameron’s fake fur rugs with something a bit more Peter Jones — tastefully inoffensive, solid and reliable.
Over time, she has weighed up the balance of forces that determine the course and control of her party. So she will tolerate some legacies of the George-David duumvirate, but only when she has ruthlessly purged the No 10 machine and ministries of their vestigial power. They have the gongs: she has the keys to No 10. Job done for now, but watch out for the old baronies. One day, they will be trouble.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Anne McElvoy was a correspondent in East Germany and is the author of The Saddled Cow, East Germany’s Life and Legacy. She is public policy editor of the Economist.