I was at a party on Wednesday night celebrating the 60th birthday of a Tory Party politician. Oh alright then, it was Andrew Mitchell. It was quite a do. I was amused to be approached at one point by a veteran of David Davis’s leadership of 2005 who was looking rather pleased with himself. “Why so happy?” I asked. “Oh, nothing really, it’s just so nice to see Nick Boles get his comeuppance after all these years.” I presumed he was talking about the texts Nick had been sending to Tory MPs in a rather desperate attempt to get Michael Gove onto the ballot, but I couldn’t really work out why this MP thought it was a “comeuppance”. “Don’t you remember?” he asked. “It was Boles who coordinated the spinning effort against David Davis’s conference speech in Blackpool?” I do remember it but hadn’t cottoned on at the time. I remember seeing him with some journalists after the speech but it hadn’t occurred to me just what was being said. I do, however, remember how the Westminster lobby slated what most people initially regarded as a perfectly acceptable speech, if not a spectacular one. Indeed, since then, several lobby journalists have spoken to me about it and admitted they all behaved like sheep. I didn’t carp about it then and I don’t now. It was a brilliant bit of spinning by the Cameron team and it’s hardly their fault if the political lobby acted like sheep. It wasn’t the first time and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Andrea Leadsom has come under scrutiny like no other leadership candidate. Clearly someone is rather afraid of her and her agenda. Some of the media commentary has been astonishing. In some ways she has done well to survive it. The worst that she has been accused of is making some slightly injudicious comments on an old blog, written long before she became an MP, and of slightly embellishing her CV. Jesus, just as well she had never betrayed her best political friend, eh? By contrast, the media has paid very little attention to anything in Theresa May’s past, and concentrated on printing a series of glowing profiles, ignoring any failures in her political career. Now there’s a reason for that. So far as I can see with Theresa what you see is what you get. There’s no side to her, there’s no real failure in her political career. Even in six years as Home Secretary you can’t really put your finger on any major failure of policy. Of course, not everything has gone to plan but compared to her predecessors in that office, everything has run comparatively smoothly. And that is why she’s considered a safe pair of hands. Andrea Leadsom’s main problem is that this leadership election will not result in the next leader of the opposition, with a couple of years to play themselves in, the winner immediately becomes prime minister. Both candidates would be learning on the job to a certain extent, but even her most diehard fan would have to admit that electing Andrea would be a more of a risk than electing Theresa, and that is the primary reason why Theresa is so far ahead in the voting.
Tony Blair’s conference on Wednesday, in response to the release of the Chilcot Report, was quite something. It lasted two hours. He answered every question the press wanted to ask, until they were exhausted. It was a typical Blair tour de force. The hand gestures. The furrowed brow. The subliminal message of “I want you to like me” was permanently present. His voice had become almost childlike. Imploring. He sounded almost in tears as he croaked away. His hair had turned a very strange colour. Brown on top, almost totally grey at the sides. But I tell you what, I still believe that if he had been leader of the Labour Party at the last election, they could well have won. The Westminster bubble totally misjudges public opinion on Tony Blair. They’ve bought into this narrative that Jeremy Corbyn has been spinning – that he is public enemy number one. That may be the case in the liberal salons of Islington. Out there in the country he’s still seen as a towering figure.
On what planet do Labour MPs think Angela Eagle is the best person to challenge Jeremy Corbyn? I like her. She’s a transparently nice woman, but a party leader? Tough enough to survive three months of abuse from Momentum? I doubt it very much.
So Tory MP James Gray, a supporter of Andrea Leadsom, described her to one of my colleagues as “a great girl.” Andrea Leadsom is 53.
So as Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom embark on their two month tour of the country to drum up support from party members, political journalists are no doubt going to start imagining what a Theresa May government would look like. Few of them expect anything other than a May victory. Well here are a few suggestions…
1. Cut the size of the Cabinet. Go back to a Cabinet of 22 members and abolish all these people “who have the right to attend Cabinet”.
2. Create a new enhanced Department of Trade, separate from the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills. Appoint a senior Brexiteer to head it up (Peter Lilley, David Davis or the like) and lead the EU negotiations and give it a remit to negotiate as many trade agreements as possible. Make it the department the best civil servants aspire to work in.
3. Abolish the DCMS and include it in a new Department of Business & Industry. Put universities back to the Department of Education.
4. Make sure it is a government of all the talents. Bring back wise old heads and make clear that the 2015 intake will need to wait their turn and earn their promotion. Bring back Dominic Grieve as Attorney General. Appoint Damian Green to the Cabinet. Clear out some of the ‘dead wood’. I’ll leave you to imagine who I am referring to!
The biggest call Theresa May is going to have to make is what to do about George Osborne and Michael Gove. They may decide they don’t wish to serve under her, but if they do she’s got two big decisions to make. Osborne surely wouldn’t accept anything less than Chancellor or Foreign Secretary, but can a Remainer really hold either of those posts if the PM is a Remainer too? If Michael Gove is to stay in the Cabinet, I suggest continuing his innovative prison reforms should be the priority and he should stay at Justice, but I rather fear that Mrs May might well think that she can do without Michael Gove’s talents at all. It would be a big all on her part, and leave a powerful enemy languishing on the back benches, but it’s difficult to see them working well together given their past history. As I say, a big call.
In any other circumstances I’d also be suggesting that David Cameron becomes Foreign Secretary, just as Sir Alec Douglas Home did in 1970 under Ted Heath. He’d be very good at the job, but in the current circumstances I doubt whether a) he’d want to stay in someone else’s Cabinet and b) whether Brexiters would be able to stomach it.