Conservatives of every stripe should be moderately pleased by the start Theresa May has made as Prime Minister. Her reshuffle was conducted with speed and efficiency, at a stroke remaking the very complexion of the Government as the Notting Hill set were sent back to their trendy wine bars and replaced by an older, mainly grammar-school educated generation. The combination of Davis, Fox and Johnson in the three ministries most concerned with ensuring that Brexit really does mean Brexit and not a Whitehall-inspired fudge is a source of reassurance. May’s emphasis on social mobility is a sign that she has heard the message of the referendum – that too many people believe that they don’t have much of a stake in the slick, new, modernised and globalised world promoted by David Cameron and his Labour soulmate Tony Blair.
So, it’s a good start. An emphasis on blue collar conservatism – the kind of approach that fired the Tory renaissance under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s – promises to ease social tensions between the haves and have nots while also strengthening bonds within the Conservative Party – badly strained by Cameron’s tendency to run his government as if it were an extension of the Bullingdon Club. With Labour in terminal decline and Ukip engaged in finding a successor to the incomparable Nigel Farage, a Tory victory at the next election looks almost assured.
Yet, beneath the frenzy of the past few weeks, which have seen a fundamental change of direction by the good ship Great Britain, the demise of one of the most self-confident and plausible prime ministers the country has ever had, the sacking of a Chancellor of six years standing, and the destruction of the ruling Tory modernising faction, serious tensions remain.
First, will the Brexit revolution be betrayed? Will Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty be activated soon and will the Government be able to secure the central objective of the Leave movement – an end to free movement of people from the EU and tariff-free access to the single market, not least an arrangement that protects London’s unique position as the world leader in financial services?
Striking free trade deals with other robust and dynamic economies such as China, the USA, India, Australia and Canada should prove eminently doable as Britain resumes its historic character as an open, globally facing nation. But there will be fury if we fail to take back full control of immigration policy.
Second, how effective will the new Government prove in tackling the mountain of geopolitical problems piling up on our doorstep? No sooner had Mrs May put Boris Johnson in charge of selling the new-look Britain to the wider world, than we were faced by yet another terrorist atrocity in France and a short-lived failed ‘coup’ in our Nato ally Turkey, a country that despite its descent into authoritarian Islamism still bids to join the EU while demanding billions to stem the migrant flow to the Continent. In these turbulent times, Mrs May’s supposedly steely judgement is going to be severely tested, especially with America looking an increasingly unreliable partner.
Finally, how much poison has entered the Tory bloodstream in the wake of the Prime Minister’s brutal reshuffle? Almost all her senior promotions (bar Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom) supported her in the aborted leadership contest. Remainers heavily outnumber Leavers in her Cabinet.
And will the modernisers go quietly? David Cameron, George Osborne, Michael Gove, Nick Boles and their acolytes have all had the cup dashed from their lips and all are in the prime of their political lives. It seems unlikely we have heard the last of them. As one observer told The Sunday Times, “The difference is that while Cameron had one awkward squad out to get him, Theresa has two. The hardcore Eurosceptics will give her a honeymoon but some of these people are obsessed and will not keep quiet for long.” Anna Soubry, the outspoken anti-Brexit business minister, is already making clear that the metropolitan liberals who have held sway in the party for more than a decade will not give up without a fight.
May also has a majority of just 12, making it harder for her to deliver any kind of radical change boosting social mobility, such as bringing back grammar schools to help poor children in deprived areas. But she has ruled out seeking a fresh mandate in an early election.
Her honeymoon is indeed likely to be short. Her greatest consolation is that Labour is no longer a serious Opposition.