Revenge of the Cameroons
Published by The i paper (9th October, 2017)
Shortly before Theresa May became Prime Minister, I was having coffee with a former member of Gordon Brown’s team. ‘Mark my words,’ he said. ‘She is the same kind of person as him, who will be exposed in Downing Street.’ This turned out to be a prescient comment. Like her Labour predecessor, May reached the summit without being tested in a proper leadership election, then shrivelled in the spotlight as someone whose ambition outstripped their abilities.
The pair have many other similarities. Gordon Brown spent years scheming against Tony Blair, then, having finally succeeded him, lacked his own agenda. His years in a top political job turned out to be inadequate preparation for serving as prime minister. He was crippled by indecision while over-protective aides infuriated colleagues. And he bungled an election campaign, even insulting voters, while appearing uncomfortable with ordinary people.
Perhaps the most revealing link between this pair of hollow politicians is how both sought definition by distancing themselves from electorally successful predecessors. Brown sacked some arch-Blairites, insisted he was different and let his spin doctors try to make a virtue of his dour nature. May failed to read the runes of recent history and went further. Now she is seeing the result of ignoring the most obvious dictum in politics: to keep friends close and enemies closer.
It is rather sad to see the contempt for David Cameron that must have been bubbling away in the Home Office for so many years of May’s tenure. A glimpse of its intensity came in a recent book on her disastrous election campaign, explaining Downing Street’s baffling delay in responding to the Manchester terror attack. Jeremy Corbyn quickly tweeted his condolences. But May’s team insisted on staying silent, since making a statement and reacting on social media was “what David Cameron did”. So, amid internal rows, it took them more than 15 hours to respond on Twitter to the atrocity.
This is a small but telling insight. It highlights why May cleared out the team that, for all its faults, actually won rather than blew an election against the odds. Drunk on power after reaching Downing Street, she sacked liberal-minded ministers in what one called the ‘demobilisation of the Cameroons’, while retaining and promoting others of questionable talent. Then she proposed a silly revival of grammar schools, shifted from a focus on house-building and criticised the Northern Powerhouse concept.
Wiser heads warned this was storing up trouble for the future. Now it is payback time for this bumbling Mrs Bean of British politics, so obviously ill-suited for the scale of challenge facing her nation. Note how the first MP to publicly suggest May should go was Ed Vaizey, stupidly sacked after six years as culture minister despite being a rare example of a Tory politician trusted in the arts world. His ‘crime’ was to be seen as a member of the ‘Notting Hill set’, yet he was an able minister who would have happily carried on in his job without ever causing trouble.
The pugnacious Grant Shapps was another key figure of the Cameron era, serving as party chairman before stumbling amid an internal Tory bullying scandal. He is being attacked for promoting a putsch, yet at least he has the courage to say publicly what so many of his hypocritical colleagues whisper privately. Contrast his stance to a snake such as Boris Johnson, so desperate for the top job and endlessly destabilising the Government before pulling back from the brink and professing loyalty. Yet the Foreign Secretary is far from alone in speaking with a forked tongue.
The malcontents are egged on by former chancellor George Osborne, waging war from his editor’s office in Kensington on a prime minister who sacked him with patronising instructions to ‘get to know my party better’. May is the woman, remember, who shifted sharply right and reversed efforts to broaden Tory appeal. She managed to widen what the think tank British Future called an ‘ethnic minority voting gap’ that cost her party 600,000 votes and an extra 28 seats – enough to have won a majority. The reborn nasty party has MPs in just five of the 75 most diverse constituencies, down from 13 in 2010.
One ex-government insider told me earlier this year: ‘The Maybot default setting is to do the opposite of the humanoid that preceded her.’ This has become all too obvious. Cameron’s career ended in flames after calling a foolish referendum, but for all the flaws in his modernisation efforts he understood the need to appeal to modern Britain rather than hark back to the past. He was more popular than his party, rather than dragging it down like a lead weight. He did not duck the Brexit fight. And he could deliver a speech to party conference without mishap.
May is clinging on to office, performing the pathetic choreography of a terminally wounded leader with all that tragic-comic talk of resilience. Iain Duncan Smith, another person over-promoted into leadership, could tell her the final blow can take time to fall, especially when hard-left Corbyn is hungrily waiting to pounce.
One minister told The Sun getting rid of her ‘is like going to the dentist. You keep putting it off because it’s going to be painful, but you know you have to do it eventually.’ When the agony finally ends, the prime minister will have plenty of time to reflect on many mistakes. Chief among them was the arrogance and bile behind her naive purge of the faction that hauled the Tories back into power.