UK Politics

May the Force be With Theresa?

9 Mar 2013 at 21:43

It’s a mark of how much trouble Number Ten is in that a speech like one Theresa May gave this afternoon at the ConservativeHome conference is automatically interpreted as a bold leadership bid. Back in November Tim Montgomerie asked her to close his Victory 2015 conference. Unless he’s a soothsayer he couldn’t possibly have imagined that the planets would have come together in such perfect leadership harmony. Why does it suddenly feel a tad like 1989?

So what’s in it? Is David Cameron in danger? Clearly not. Not yet. Nick Boles was spot on in this morning’s Times when he said…

“The overwhelming majority of my fellow MPs understand that David Cameron’s leadership and a record of governing responsibly offers us the best chance of persuading the voters to give us an overall majority in 2015, but a few malcontents — most of them sitting on big majorities — seem willing to risk letting Labour back in by indulging their ideological obsessions. I just wish they would listen to those MPs elected in 2010 in very marginal seats who want them to shut up.

“People who voted for UKIP at Eastleigh think of themselves as more left wing than Conservative, so what a great success that was. We shouldn’t try to compete on the right with them. It is clear that some more noisy [Tory MPs] have been trying to peddle their own agenda and I suspect some have a malign desire to destabilise David Cameron and George Osborne. But I sense there are a lot of sensible people thinking, ‘I went to Eastleigh and I didn’t recognise the party I thought I had been elected to’ .”

Well that was a good bitch-slap to Grant Shapps.

I doubt if many Tories could say they were 100% happy with David Cameron, but that’s par for the course with any Tory leader. I don’t detect any great move against Cameron even though there are certainly rumblings among the usual suspects on the authoritarian right. They will probably get louder after what will be a disaster in the May county council elections, and the Number Ten machine (if it can be called that) needs to get its ducks in a row to anticipate what might happen.

Up until now, Cameron hasn’t really faced any meaningful leadership chatter, partly because the Party have been happy to tolerate a leader who they thought would bring them electoral success, even though they knew he treated his own party with an air of disdain. But there seems to be a growing narrative that Cameron can’t win an overall majority at the next election. Today’s Ashcroft poll which shows only 7% of Tories believing in a majority plays into that. This is very dangerous for Cameron’s leadership.

His saving grace has always been the lack of an alternative. One right wing friend of mine puts it like this…

Davis too lazy, Gove too odd/Scottish, Hague too bald/unsound, Osborne c**t, Fox finished, Villiers useless, Greening unstable, Hammond charisma-bypass, Hunt goggle-eyed, Boris is Fabricant without the common sense and as reliable as a Reliant Robin, May risible.

Cutting. I will resist the temptation to analyse each of those conclusions, you will be disappointed to hear, but I do think that the next leader of the Conservative Party is possibly not even in the Cabinet, or even a Minister yet. However, let’s turn to Mrs May.

Matthew D’Ancona writes in tomorrow’s Telegraph that it will be the Cabinet which decides Cameron’s fate.

What we are observing now is not a full-blown oligarchic mutiny but a loosening of the ties of loyalty: behaviour that does not presuppose certain electoral defeat in 2015 but presumes its likelihood. Some of this conduct is ideological: ensuring that differences of opinion with the pilot are recorded in the black box before the plane crashes… I do not believe for a second that either Hammond or May is preparing for a leadership race before the election. But each is trying on for size the vestments of the dauphin, strutting a little more, displaying a little more independence and public confidence.

I have no idea whether Theresa May is on manoeuvres or not. It wouldn’t be unknown for senior politicians to fly kites and this may well be what’s happening at the moment. And perhaps with good reason. Many Tories think that she has been quite a success in the Home Office, a department which has been notoriously difficult to handle. Indeed, in opposition she rarely put a foot wrong. Ah, you say, but what about the ‘Nasty Party’ incident at the 2003 party conference? To some this means she should be permanently disqualified from leading the party, to others she was a Cameroon before David Cameron. She identified the problem which has bedevilled the Conservative Party, and I believe still does. People just don’t like it. As Party Chairman she built on work already started by David Davis to recruit more female candidates. She realised that Tory candidates were rather too white, male and middle class. David Cameron may have implemented the A List but it was an idea firmly rooted in Theresa May’s legacy as party chairman.

But Theresa May suffers from two possibly fatal flaws. Firstly, she hasn’t got a natural constituency in Parliament. There aren’t a whole host of MPs known as ‘Mayans’, who are ready to install phonelines at the first available opportunity. On the other hand, she has few enemies, and as David Davis could testify, that’s quite important. But secondly, and possibly more importantly, apart from being a moderniser, no one has the slightest idea what she believes in. That’s why today’s speech at the ConservativeHome conference was important. It’s the first time Theresa May has allowed us into her mind. Her supporters, were we to know who they were, would no doubt tell us that few people knew what Margaret Thatcher believed in before she was elected leader in 1974.

Theresa May knows that if she has leadership ambitions, she will need to appeal to the Tory right. Cynics will no doubt point to her apparent willingness for Britain to withdraw from the ECHR as evidence of that. It smacks of Cameron’s populist move in 2005 to promise to withdraw the Tories from the EPP. He knew it wouldn’t be quite as simple as that, but it shored up the Eurosceptic vote at the expense of David Davis. The same boneheads who believed Cameron will no doubt fall for Theresa May’s wheeze.

I rather like Theresa May. Apart from her excellent fashion sense and her taste in cars (she and her very nice husband Philip are fellow Audi lovers), I like the fact that after 15 years in Parliament she has decided to step forward and assert herself rather than just obey the latest leader she has served under. I have no idea what the consequences are, but let’s face it, it’s about time Boris Johnson had some competition in the next Tory leader stakes.