A sideshow, not a solution
12 December 2018 10:20
Precisely when Conservative MPs should be confronting the huge and pressing questions that face the country, they have chosen the smallest available to them. Priorities have been inverted, common sense discarded, the public interest ignored.
In normal circumstances, a vote of confidence in a Tory leader who was also – as it happened – the Prime Minister would indeed be a reckoning of the highest order. But in the present context, as Britain stumbles towards a shambolic exit from the EU, this evening’s vote on Theresa May’s leadership is a distraction, an indulgence and a parlour game.
Having proved herself the worst PM since the war and presided over the comprehensive fragmentation of her own party, she absolutely does not deserve to win. Last year, she contrived to squander the Commons majority she had inherited from David Cameron in a general election she had promised not to hold, and continued in office only by buying the support of the Democratic Unionist Party with £1 billion of taxpayer’s money. Her management of the Cabinet has been pitiful. Her vision for Brexit pleases nobody and has left the country facing the horror of a no-deal exit, even as she has scorned the entirely reasonable demands of a growing proportion of the electorate for a People’s Vote. From Grenfell to Windrush to universal credit, she has limped from disaster to disaster with no visible embarrassment or humility. As Talleyrand said of the Bourbons, she learns nothing, and forgets nothing.
But it is also true that her departure and replacement by any of the likely pretenders – Boris Johnson, Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt et al – will not make the management of this deep constitutional crisis even slightly easier. The great issue of the day is national trajectory not the identity of the Conservative leader. This is a sideshow not a solution.
The rules under which May is being held to account were put in place by William Hague when he was Tory leader to fend off serial challenges to his position (principally by Kenneth Clarke). Under these reforms, the incumbent could no longer be challenged by another MP hungry for the top job, or the fabled ‘stalking horse’ preparing the ground for a bigger beast. He could only be held accountable in a confidence vote triggered when 15 per cent or more of Conservative MPs wrote to the chairman of the 1922 Committee. If he lost that contest, he was out, and could not stand in the subsequent leadership contest.
In other words: May will either hold on to her job or be sacked this evening. If she is handed her notice, Tory MPs will then whittle down the field of potential successors to a shortlist of two – which will go, in the final round, to the elderly Conservative membership for the selection of the victor (they will choose a Brexiteer). There has not been a full contest since 2005, when David Cameron beat David Davis (May herself did not have to face a members’ vote in 2016, since Andrea Leadsom dropped out of the contest, leaving the path clear to Number Ten).
In her statement at Downing Street earlier this morning, the PM tried (rather too obviously) to channel the spirit of Margaret Thatcher’s defiant assertion in 1990: ‘I fight on, I fight to win.’ May’s version was that she would ‘contest that vote with everything I have got.’
But what, really, has she got? What remained of her authority – and that was precious little – she sacrificed on Monday by postponing the ‘meaningful vote’ in the Commons on her 585-page deal with Brussels.
Yesterday she cut a sorry figure touring continental Europe in search of concessions that she had been told, repeatedly, are not available. Her calculation that the Commons – and the country – would unite around her agreement with the EU as the least worst option has proved wildly ill-judged. Even if her MPs decide, on balance, to let her keep her job this evening, it would be a huge exaggeration to claim that she has their true confidence, or the capacity to govern the country with anything approaching credibility. She may limp on as the politically-undead, but that is all she will be (if she wins, do not believe those who claim, as they will, that her authority has been enhanced).
If she hangs on, it will be for fear of something worse (a tousle-haird blond Brexiteer who thinks he is Aslan, for starters) rather than in any spirit of admiration. If she goes, her party will be plunged into introspective mayhem for weeks, even as the countdown to Brexit – still set for March 29 – continues remorselessly.
Labour giggles pointlessly at the sidelines, gleeful but paralysed by its own indecision and conspicuous inability to distinguish its own prospects from the national interest. It looks nothing like a governing party, though it may yet end up being one.
When the nation most needs grown-ups, politics has been reduced to a playground of squabbling children armed with matches and dynamite. The rest of us can only look on, hopeful that the damage will not be as great as seems all too likely.
PS Here is my column for the London Evening Standard on May’s unbelievable imperviousness to embarrassment.