ConHome Diary: Interviewing the PM, Reshuffle Speculation & Corbyn's Momentum
13 Oct 2017 at 11:43
I think enough has been written over the last forty-eight hours about my phone-in with Theresa May on LBC. But here goes anyway. Firstly, all credit to her for doing it. She’s the first prime minister since Tony Blair to do a radio phone-in outside an election period. These things always carry a slight risk for a politician because they can never be sure they will be won’t be tripped up by a member of the public. Interviewers can be tame beasts compared to Jill in Sidcup. Ask Nick Clegg. The main reason for the timing was the publication of the government’s Racial Disparity Audit. It’s clearly something Theresa May feels very strongly about. If you recall she talked about this issue on the steps of Downing Street when she became prime minister. We took several calls on this and spent a third of the time on the subject. The audit is just that – an audit, and at times it makes for some dark reading, but if the problem isn’t properly diagnosed how one earth can anyone come up with some long-term solutions? I thought she dealt with most of the other questions from callers very well, including a Conservative who told her the only way of defeating Jeremy Corbyn was for her to stand down. Not an easy one for any politician to navigate. But it was on Brexit where the headlines emerged from. An EU national phoned in and then I asked her the same question I’d asked Jeremy Hunt a week earlier: If there was a new referendum now, how would she vote? You’ll have read about this elsewhere. Some people think I shouldn’t have asked her such a question – I must have known I wouldn’t get a straight answer. Others seem to think it was the most brilliant question an interviewer has ever asked. It wasn’t. I honestly thought she would follow Jeremy Hunt’s lead and say that knowing what she knows now, she would vote for Brexit. Well, I suppose one positive has emerged from it – now one can ever accuse me of being a Tory patsy interviewer ever again.
Interestingly, the media furore which ensued over this wasn’t really shared by our listeners or on social media. They were largely praising the PM for having the guts to do the phone-in and even if they didn’t agree with everything she said, she had their respect, especially after the week she had endured. She should do a lot more of this sort of thing.
Of course after the ‘have you changed your mind on Brexit’ question, it’s now open season on all the Remainers in the cabinet to be challenged. Damian Green was served up on Newsnight and he tackled it head on and said he didn’t resile from his Remain support one iota. Karen Bradley was skewered by Piers Morgan who asked her eight times if she’d now support Brexit. She, like the PM, trotted out the ‘I don’t answer hypothetical questions’ line, and wasn’t any more convincing. Later on Wednesday Liz Truss went on the Daily Politics to declare that she was now an enthusiastic Brexiteer, having previously been one of the cabinet’s chief Remain cheerleaders. She said when the facts change, you change your mind. Yup, I’m sure Theresa May will have loved that. Could that hasten her departure from the cabinet in a reshuffle? Stranger things have happened.
Talking of reshuffles, the papers last weekend were full of reshuffle speculation. We all have our theories on who should be ditched and who should be promoted, but I wonder whether it will happen at all. Some observers believe it will happen in the week following the EU summit next weekend. I won’t speculate on names here for the moment, but there is only any point in a reshuffle if it actually changes the political weather. Few reshuffles ever do. Surely the main aim of a reshuffle now would be to signal a generational change. Even if the Chancellor and Foreign Secretary retain their jobs, there need to be at least four cabinet departures, together with a whole raft from the Minister of State and junior ranks. Theresa May will inevitably make a lot more new enemies but the truth is that if she is going to be the first PM in a long time to plan her succession properly, she needs to bring on younger MPs who she will tip for greatness.
It’s quite noticeable that Jeremy Corbyn has got a bit of a spring in his step at the moment. He’s far more relaxed and fluent on the rare occasions he does live media interviews and he seems more polished at the Despatch Box. Maybe it’s just that he appears more comfortable in his own skin. I imagine a large part of it is because the election campaign gave a real boost to his self confidence. In the end, politicians are just like the rest of us. If we’re constantly told we’re shit by everyone then we may come to believe it. The ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ phenomenon must have given a renewed sense of self belief and it’s coming over to the public. You don’t find too many Conservatives who underestimate Corbyn any longer. Luckily there is time for Tory High Command to work out a new way of dealing with him, because so far none of their strategies have worked.