Theresa May’s biggest challenge: admitting Cameron was right

Published by The Mail on Sunday (18th June, 2017)

When Theresa May arrived in Downing Street she behaved like the leader of a rebel army seizing a Royal palace rather than the Home Secretary taking a step up the Westminster career ladder.

She purged the old guard, made great play of being different, and promised to set her party on a new course. Her foot soldiers and supporters cheered loudly, hailing her strength as they prepared to crush enemies at the ballot box.

Now the dust settles after a dismal Election that snatched near-defeat from the jaws of victory. And the self-styled Boudicca who promised to unite Britain’s warring tribes and defeat her European foes looks more like Mrs Bean.

Yes, May still has the keys to Downing Street in her handbag. But she has trashed her own reputation. Tossed away a parliamentary majority. Torn up her manifesto. Lost her closest aides. Infuriated her party. Assisted her enemies, both internal and external. Exacerbated divisions in Britain. And annoyed much of Europe.

Our nation begins all-important Brexit talks tomorrow with a badly wounded leader hastily cobbling together a fresh team and stance. ‘We’re not surprised by seeing her weakness,’ one European diplomat told me. ‘We knew she was weak.’

The two-year timescale after triggering Article 50 is designed to make withdrawal from the EU difficult. May wasted one-eighth of it on a ballot that backfired. The economy is stumbling. And the new political reality makes it hard to see the shape of any deal winning Westminster support.

Perhaps the Prime Minister might reflect on the wisdom of overthrowing David Cameron’s regime with such revolutionary fervour, given the parliamentary paralysis. She might even, dare I say, try listening to her predecessor as she searches for a path forward on Europe.

Such was her hostility to the ancien regime one key figure voted Green in the election. And having humiliated George Osborne, the ex-chancellor is demonstrating each day as editor of the Evening Standard that revenge is delicious served cold.

Another former government insider bemoaned to me ‘the Maybot default setting is to do the opposite of the humanoid that preceded her.’

Yet Cameron was a winner and more popular than his party – unlike his successor whose stature shrivels in the spotlight. He became coalition leader in 2010 off the biggest Tory gain in seats for eight decades, then won unchecked power five years later amid austerity.

He saw the need to shift Conservatives to the centre ground, not revive grammar schools. He took part in difficult Election debates. And he would not have been frightened to meet victims and relatives of the dead in a disaster, something that will deservedly haunt May.

Cameron told friends he was amazed to see Tory Election efforts focus so heavily on Labour heartlands, insisting such seats would never turn blue. He was right; Labour even increased its share of the vote in Halifax, home to the Tory manifesto launch.

I accept some bias as his former speechwriter. Yet I was also a fierce public critic on issues such as aid, housing and immigration, while attacking his foolish appeasement of hard-Right zealots that led to the wretched EU referendum.

The big question confronting May is how to clean up the mess. She is so toxic that Labour insiders tell me they would reject efforts to forge a team of national unity on Brexit – and she’s so holed that the hard-Left forces of Corbyn believe they are just one step from power.

This idea terrifies Tory troops. Perversely, MPs in the party that just won the Election are so stunned by the result that they are frantically reviewing everything, while the losers rally round a once-reviled leader and feel supremely confident. For now, at least.

Last week Cameron joined calls for May to adopt a ‘softer’ Brexit, telling a Polish conference she should consult more widely. He was right: if she carries on pushing stubbornly for hard Brexit, she will lose any vote in Parliament, risking no deal and major economic disruption.

Yet such is the Westminster stasis and surge of Labour confidence that even the more sensible Norwegian option – which cuts costs and regains some legislative control while avoiding hard borders and customs delays – might struggle to pass in this zombie Parliament.

Labour will play games, hoping for a new Election. And the headbangers who have already brought down three Tory prime ministers over Europe could put loathing of Brussels ahead of party and country again – even if it means Britain crashes out in devastating style.

Perhaps Cameron’s Brexit analysis was correct. First on Project Fear, given our stuttering economy. And second on his private conclusion that it will send Britain at best from being a fringe player in Europe looking outwards to an outside player always looking in.

Hard not to wonder if it is worth all the disruption, isn’t it? Especially when a deadly inferno in London has exposed the sorry divisions in society needing urgent repair.

When James Cleverly was out campaigning for his Braintree seat, he visited a village and came across two young mums with their children. They had a friendly chat and one took a selfie with the candidate.

Later she posted it on social media – only to receive a firestorm of abuse for associating with ‘Tory scum’. Shocked, she soon took the image down – one more civilian caught in the crossfire of an increasingly vicious online war.

Such onslaughts on Facebook and Twitter have become a depressing part of politics, especially for women who are often singled out for the worst savaging. The attrition left one defeated MP, a dedicated and decent individual, saying he might not stand again. ‘This daily and routine aggression is making public life very difficult,’ he told me.

Concerns were raised at last week’s meeting of Tory backbenchers, addressed by the Prime Minister. Most believe it is driven by hardline supporters of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Regardless, this barrage of hate and hostility is one more reason to deter good people from frontline politics when we desperately need to raise, not diminish, the quality of Parliament.

Ruth Davidson is seen by many as a Tory saviour in this age of populist politics. Friends say the likeable Scottish leader was planning to get married to partner Jen Wilson, start a family and then find a safe Edinburgh seat after boundary changes before joining Westminster.

Given the abrupt ending of May’s honeymoon with voters, she may need to hasten her plans.

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