When Casting Around for Blame, Theresa May Should Look to Herself

I like to think that should anyone declare that Theresa May were her own worst enemy, Boris Johnson, a handful of Tory backwoodsmen, and 90% of Twitter - echoing Ernest Bevin - would declare: “Not while I’m alive she ain’t.”

Maybe even Jeremy Corbyn would join in.

Yet there is a good case to be made that the prime minister more sins than is sinned against. After all, this crisis in her leadership began when she called an unnecessary election for which she was woefully unprepared.

It is less than two months since she negotiated Britain into Phase Two of Brexit talks, aided by a nervously sympathetic European Union. Despite losing her deputy to a sex scandal, she went into the Christmas period with her authority ebbing back.

So what changed?

The most obvious event is her botched reshuffle. Leave aside, the chaotic management of the day itself which saw Chris Grayling become the shortest Party Chairman in the Conservatives’ history, the proof is in the eating.

The prime minister said she wanted her Cabinet to reflect diverse Britain but never followed through.  

The lack of fresh talent from the 2010 intake indicated that the prime minister was ready to renege on her agreement to serve as long as the party wanted her - with rumours that she wanted to fight another election fanning the flames.

The promotion of the unassuming David Lidington to replace Damian Green - though without the latter’s stature - was a grim message for Tories hoping for, well, a domestic agenda.

She ended up sacking an education secretary who was not only (in Tory terms) relatively successful and popular but also a walking advertisement for Tory diversity, while keeping in place an unpopular health secretary under whose management the NHS had endured its worst winter in decades.

She allowed Jeremy Hunt, of all politicians, to advertise her weakness. It is no wonder that furrier political beasts are now making May eat her words that no minister is unsackable.

The worst of it is that May aspired to be a transformational leader

The NHS winter crisis, the release of John Worboys and the collapse of Carillion have all given the impression of a government unable to forge its own destiny. The rise in rough sleeping is a source of shame. Child and in-work poverty are problems only met with government silence.

It is a verdict on Labour’s success in office that the government accepted so many of its premises. What it does not have are policies.

Its inability to get ahead of the curve on NHS funding is fundamental to May’s woes. She tore up George Osborne’s deficit plan but lacks the nouse to take advantage of it. Just because it is Johnson saying it does not automatically make it wrong.  

At Davos, she was overshadowed by Emmanuel Macron. To eurosceptic eyes, Brexit is a world of possibility. To the world, it is a curiosity. However, May decided to give a worthy address on AI instead.

The worst of it is that May aspired to be a transformational leader. Her potential agenda could have recreated her party (ironically, given Brexit) in the mould of a European Christian Democratic party.

The election changed that and Labour, who presume a sea change towards a left-wing agenda. Maybe. Maybe not. I am doubtful that the public are ideologically against outsourcing per se. They are certainly against bosses profitting shamelessly from public losses.

The kind of leader May wanted to be could have tackled the Carillion collapse. The kind she is cannot. She has become the status quo.

It is no wonder that Tories are restless, with newspapers reporting that 1922 Chair, Graham Brady, is close to having the 48 letters needed for a confidence vote. And it may be that a vote itself is all that is needed for May to go.

The trouble is, May no longer has any natural defenders. She offended Remain Tories with her tone on Brexit. As she works towards the softest of hard Brexits, Jacob Rees Mogg’s cross questioning of Brexit Secretary, David Davis, demonstrates the fraying trust. However, every Brexiters’ Bible is the Prime Minister’s own words.

Yet, for all the speculation: what has actually changed? There is still no dauphin. Tory members are unlikely to elect a Remainer until Brexit is done. The best alternatives for Brexiters are Johnson and Gove, and both come with baggage. And hand luggage too. All sides have reason to stay their hands.

Despite the torrid events, the government hangs on according to opinion polls. An early election would probably not give Labour a majority. Corbyn is failing to build support since his election surge.

We have been here before. John Major survived five years of this. More recently, Labour - twenty points behind in the polls - kept Gordon Brown with promises of change. One consequence of backbench nerves is press speculation on what would happen were May to leave. It does not look pretty. Bloody plagues, and all that.  

So perhaps the most telling report was the warning that May had three months to improve or…. Or what exactly?

The noise reveals the febrile tension waiting to be released but regicide should be made of sterner stuff: twere well it be done quickly. The hesitation is telling.

But if Tory doubters proceed with this business, Theresa May can look to herself when casting around for blame.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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