In the hours and days immediately after the Tory general election disaster, an emergency team was put in place around the Prime Minister. Her trusted friend Damian Green became de facto deputy PM and Gavin Barwell her chief of staff. Along with ultra-ambitious chief whip Gavin Williamson, who was foolishly sent to Ulster to almost botch the negotiations with the DUP, the “two Gavins” and one Damian operated a broken Prime Minister. She, a naturally shy person, had suffered the trauma of an election campaign gone horribly wrong but, to her credit, she decided to stay on when it would have been easier to run for the hills into comfortable retirement.
This emergency arrangement designed to prop up the Tory leader could be presented to make quite a bit of sense. There was no obvious successor, what with the Tory parliamentary party post-election having serious doubts about Boris, and none of the talented youngsters seemingly ready.
I didn’t buy the “May Must Stay” schtick then, thinking she was finished the moment the exit poll landed in June, but it was possible over the course of the summer to acknowledge that May’s team had stabilised the situation and the government seemed to be just about managing. For that all to hang together, the front person, the Prime Minister, needed to be able to deliver on the basics and stay well.
Then came the horror of her speech in Manchester. Sympathy for what unfolded hardly begins to cover it. Public speaking is not a lot of fun. People who actively enjoy it too much tend to be sociopaths or quite weird. The best that can be said is that with training it can become okay, and sometimes gratifying when it works and the audience is engaged. Incidentally, like May, George Osborne hated public speaking and was trained by someone brilliant. May has become very good – really – at the set-piece, the highly scripted address. She can deliver jokes too.
And then today happened and it all fell apart in public in a way that has gone viral. What a deeply shy person suffered there was a full-blown psychiatrist’s couch darkest nightmare, like the missed exam (I still sometimes dream I missed my finals, when I didn’t) or the being naked in a bar with no wallet (that never happened!). This was all that times ten. As my colleague at The Times Hugo Rifkind tweeted afterwards: he had never liked her more.
But feeling sorry for leaders and keeping them on out of sympathy is not, generally, a practical way to proceed when it comes to running a proper country. Especially when the country is with Brexit going through its largest peacetime undertaking in living memory.
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Theresa May should be spared any more stress. It is over. Her public service in the spotlight is at an end and before it comes any creepier – a bunch of men keeping her in place propped up – her husband needs to intervene as he did so powerfully at the conclusion of the nightmare speech.
Who should it be instead? The phonelines, or optic cables or whatever, are humming. I’ll write more about the options in the coming days, but the most likely seems to be a rapid replacement that the cabinet and Tory party can rally around, although members will hardly wear another coup. It could be David Davis (as Prime Minister negotiating Brexit) with a deputy PM such as Amber Rudd handling domestic matters. Or Amber Rudd, whose small majority does not matter, with Davis as Deputy Prime Minister. Or a wildcard young minister outside the cabinet, such as Dominic Raab or Rory Stewart.
And Boris will surely fight like fury to avoid a stitch-up or a leadership contest in which he is not put in front of the Tory membership in the final two. As it stands, such is the anger of cabinet ministers and MPs with his behaviour in recent weeks that he may well be denied a go.
Meanwhile, Christmas has come early for Jeremy Corbyn.
It is all, to put it mildly, quite a mess.