Shortly before flying off to Switzerland for her three-week walking holiday, Theresa May asked her Cabinet to behave in her absence. There’s no point in briefing against each other, she told them. It destabilises the government and everyone can normally guess who has done the leaking. There was a silence. Then she was asked: will this truce also apply to her? Will 10 Downing Street refrain from briefing against Cabinet members? She replied that she has never done such a thing. Yes, a few of them thought, you just let others do it for you.
Ten weeks have passed since the general election debacle, and still May’s Cabinet have not forgiven her — not so much for losing her majority, but for the way she was treating them beforehand. They felt they were being instructed rather than consulted, then attacked by her officials if they displeased her. The general election removed May’s authority and her Cabinet colleagues have been enjoying their liberation a bit too much. They’ve been contradicting each other, kite-flying, openly musing about what sort of Brexit they’d personally like. To the outside world, this looks shambolic: why must they squabble in public? Why is Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, giving interviews to French newspapers undermining his own government’s position on Brexit? The answer is that, for some time, ministers have felt as if they have been treated like schoolchildren, so they are behaving like schoolchildren. But after a long holiday, the teacher has returned.
May has not really sought to restore order since the election. Her strategy has been to let her colleagues behave as badly as they like, and then see how awful they look. We have seen a Tory summer of sin, a Woodstock of free thinking and louche political behaviour. This squabbling has been a national embarrassment, making the Government look hopelessly unready for the Brexit negotiations now under way. Even successes, like Liam Fox securing free-trade talks in Washington, have been undermined by feuding over chlorinated chicken. In general, discipline seems to have collapsed. Yet still the Conservatives seem to have no idea who they would like to succeed May. Bookmakers have their favourites.
The shortest odds are currently on David Davis, followed by Hammond and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has modestly pointed out that if he’s the answer then someone is asking a rather daft question. Then comes Ruth Davidson, who isn’t even an MP. So May is staying as prime minister for the same reasons that she became prime minister: her party hasn’t managed to find anyone else. She is ready to try again, and has started by bringing fundamental change to No 10. The two advisers whom her colleagues blamed for the reign of terror have slowly been replaced by a new inner circle, chosen from MPs. They are James Brokenshire, Northern Ireland Secretary, Karen Bradley, the Culture Secretary, and Damian Green, whom she has appointed First Secretary of State. All three are marked out by loyalty, a quality that she values above all others.
This is the basis for the restoration of functioning government. The prime minister’s premiership can now go one of four ways. The first, which we cannot discount, is that she might decide that she’s had enough and walk away. This would plunge her party into a leadership crisis for which it is unprepared and from which it might never recover. Alternatively, her ministers might find that they can never forgive her for her pre-election management style and force her out. There are signs of this already, with some ministers objecting to any policy that comes out of No 10 out of sheer devilment. Tension between the Treasury and No 10, which just did not exist under David Cameron and George Osborne, is now back and is already starting to slow down government. The third option, and at this stage the most likely, is that May soldiers on until Brexit is finalised, and then steps down. This is hardly ideal: sending a weakened prime minister in to negotiate Brexit can only lead to a bad deal with Brussels.
The depressing thing is that she was quite right, in the general election, to say that she needed a strong mandate for these talks. It’s bad enough that she didn’t get one from her country, but it would be worse to be denied one from her party. But there is another option: that May manages an Angela Merkel-style revival. The similarities between the two go further than is generally realised. Both are vicars’ daughters, both holiday in the Alps and both have blown commanding opinion poll leads. In 2005, Merkel started her bid for office with an 18-point lead over Gerhard Schroeder, but ended up scraping only a narrow victory after an inept, gaffe-studded campaign.
Like May, she had got the top job — but was blamed by her party for blowing it. The way out of this is simple: you govern effectively, and seek to win back a reputation for competence. This worked spectacularly for Merkel, who is now a few weeks away from what’s widely expected to be her fourth term as Chancellor. May has plenty of opportunities to win back the trust of her party, chiefly by defending a clear and optimistic vision of Brexit. None of her colleagues have been able to improve on her original plan: a clean break, leaving the single market and the customs union, with a transition period of a couple of years or so. It’s not really May’s reputation that is now at stake, but that of the Conservative Party in general. The open deliberations of the last few weeks have shown that, for all of Theresa May’s faults, the party has no alternative to her has prime minister. So their only option, now, is to let her lead.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2017
Fraser Nelson is the editor of the Spectator and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph.