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Barely back in business for 48 hours and the corridors of Parliament and the coffee houses of Westminster are feverishly buzzing with talk of de-selections, leadership plots, Brexit shenanigans, who Boris is dating, how much weight Tom Watson has lost, how nasty twitter is, what’s in the forthcoming Budget, when, if ever, Mark Carney will stop running the Bank of England, and all the other important stuff that dominates our current political life.
But there is life outside the Westminster Bubble, believe it or not. The Archbishop of Canterbury has told the TUC everyone should join a trade union. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has criticised the government for not paying her officers enough. An epidemic of fatness is sweeping the country. Our prison officers are struggling to keep order and the police to enforce the law. Russia challenges us more overtly, whether it is through extra-judicial killings, overflights by the Russian air force or maritime incursions by their navy. The Chinese are annoyed with the Royal Navy. British business – small, medium and large – is, on the whole, quite worried about the government (much to the government’s bemusement and irritation) and more than quite worried by some of the noises the Labour Party is making.
Theresa May is the seventh leader of the Conservative Party and fourth Conservative Prime Minister to have to tackle the fraught issue of Britain’s relationship with the European Union. None of her predecessors has emerged from the experience unscathed. To Mrs May falls the task of pulling some new settlement together. Odds on she will find an agreement with the European Union and that that agreement will receive Parliamentary approval. Will it resolve the debate in the Conservative Party and in the country on the issue? No. It is the same argument we have been having in various forms since Julius Caesar first came over for a long weekend in 55 BC. The Brexit Agreement will only be the latest instalment. At the full flood of his Prime Ministerial pomp Tony Blair was only able to embed Britain so far into the EU. Even he found limitations. The issue crosses party boundaries, regions of the country, and communities of every type.
Mrs May reached Downing Street because she was the last contestant still standing in a contest notable for a lack of serious alternative candidates. Hers was a campaign of solid resilience, persistence, care and caution. This is how she has, on the whole, conducted her Premiership. Under Tony Blair and David Cameron we had become used to fast-talking, smooth presentation and a certain off handedness that did not sit well with good government. With Mrs May we have had something different – the priority of substance over style. For journalists and commentators this is frustration without respite, with deadlines to meet and pages to fill. It shows in much of the coverage Mrs May receives.
The instinct of the Parliamentary Conservative Party is overwhelmingly to support the Prime Minister in her search for a Brexit settlement. There is a desire to bring the focus back onto the pressing domestic issues they know, from evidence and anecdotes from constituency surgeries and correspondence from voters, that are worrying the electorate. A political party which deep in its soul prides itself on being a ruthless election winning machine, but has only won one General Election in the last 26 years, needs to find new and compelling ways to re-engage voters and win back their votes – and if at all possible their hearts as well.