‘Tory High Command’ is a journalistic cliché not much seen or heard these days. With good reason. Scarcely has there been a period in the allegedly-Conservative Party’s recent history when command of any kind has been so conspicuously lacking. It’s gone either AWOL, or missing in action.
Where, and even who, is it? It ought to have been axiomatic that the party’s former chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, absent to the point of near-invisibility during its disastrous 2017 election campaign, should have resigned in the early hours of Friday 9th June.
But he did not. Nor, apparently, was he required to: presumably because Theresa May herself, near-fatally weakened by losing her overall majority in an unnecessary election, having agreed to front a campaign based on the personality of a leader with no discernible personality, lacked the authority to demand it.
Instead, McLoughlin was allowed to remain in place for another seven months, until May’s recent, botched, reshuffle. New chairman Brandon Lewis has in effect been handed a poisoned chalice. The delay has not only diminished the political significance of the chairman, but also exacerbated the structural and organisational issues he must grapple with before even starting to plan an electoral fightback. No ‘High Command’ there.
Additionally, because May allowed the blatantly manoeuvring former Chief Whip Gavin Williamson to ‘recommend’ himself to replace Michael Fallon at Defence, she has a new Commons whips’ team. They have to try to enforce the wishes of a leader bereft of authority after frittering away their overall majority, among a parliamentary cohort including at least 15 resolved to frustrate the Government’s flagship policy. Not much ‘High Command’ there either.
Cabinet and senior MP discipline appears to have broken down almost completely, into open semi-revolt. In the last few days alone we’ve seen:
- ‘friends’ of Boris Johnson briefing in advance the demands he was to make in Cabinet about NHS funding;
- Nick Boles (correctly) lamenting the lack of any kind of radical agenda, especially on housing;
- Nicholas Soames, normally a leadership loyalist to the point of slavishness, going public on his support for, and agreement with, Boles;
- Graham Brady virtually pleading for no more MPs’ letters demanding a vote of confidence in May’s leadership to be sent to him as chair of the 1922 Committee, suggesting we must be very close to the number of 48 which would trigger one;
- Worst of all, Philip Hammond virtually assuring the Davos World Economic Forum of ‘only very modest change’ in the UK’s relationship with the EU post-Brexit, against a background of increasing suspicion that May, Rudd, Hammond and the Cabinet’s other arch-Remainers are working covertly towards a BRINO – Brexit In Name Only.
One inescapable factor is common to all of these. It is Theresa May’s own near-total lack of ideology, intellectual curiosity, governing-philosophy, vision, direction, commitment, strategy, competence, charisma, and, most of all, leadership ability.
The Hammond self-indulgence, contradicting what at least passes for Cabinet policy, is now her political litmus test. If May takes no further action beyond a timidly mild rebuke to Hammond for going off-piste at Davos to signal appeasement to the corporatist oligarchy, that will speak volumes, both for her own lack of Brexit-commitment and for her now terminally expiring political authority and credibility.
To those of us who had deep misgivings about her on her unelected coronation in 2016, this comes as no surprise. Theresa May has been found out.
A surprise Cameron pick for Home Secretary in 2010, she flattered to deceive at the Home Office, where a mediocre Secretary of State can hide behind the confidentiality that surrounds much of its remit. Other than refusing the extradition to the USA of computer hacker Gary McKinnon and finally procuring the deportation of Abu Qatada, her record there was largely one of failure, especially to reduce the level of immigration.
She’s remembered mostly for an instinctive authoritarianism – recall her proposed illiberal Snoopers’ Charter and Extremism Disruption Orders? – and for combining that with a default EU-philia which saw her opt back in to the equally illiberal European Arrest Warrant after UK membership of it had expired.
We now know that her fabled taciturn and non-committal demeanour, spun by her aides and supporters as ‘Theresa consults and weighs up both sides of an argument carefully before making up her mind’, was just that – spin. Too many voices for it to be coincidence have come forward to say that the reason she sits and says nothing is because she has nothing to say – that it takes a while, but eventually they come to realise there just isn’t very much going on in there.
It’s now obvious this was more or less obscured, by her chiefs of staff during her first year in office as Prime Minister until they were forced out after the 2017 election débacle, and more recently by Damian Green in his de facto role of her deputy until his own forced resignation.
It was said of the hapless John Major that as Prime Minister he resembled a squishy cushion in that he invariably bore, politically, the imprint of the last person who sat on him. The same conclusion about May is unavoidable. She is temperamentally incapable of leadership, essentially a careerist, preternaturally cautious, indecisive, managerialist. Her government is pathologically timorous and desperate, trapped like a rabbit frozen in the twin headlights of a Brexit it’s anxious to dilute, and Corbyn.
This is no longer merely a question of putting Brexit at risk, much as though diehard-Remainer Tory MPs might welcome it as a consequence of their not moving against May. Continued leadership stagnation will usher in a Corbyn-led government, and the loss of their own seats with it.
May is simply not up to being Prime Minister. It’s an intriguing paradox that someone with such authoritarian instincts should be such an ineffective leader. But command ultimately requires leadership. Where there is no leadership, there is no command. Along with Hammond at least, she must go, soon, whatever the short-term risks.