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As I write this, in a car speeding north through the Swedish countryside to a conference to make a speech (about how well Brexit is going…) the phone is buzzing with texts and calls from London. All manner of shenanigans are ongoing. After much argument, the Prime Minister has announced the beginning of a cabinet that keeps the top five in place. There was an interlude during which the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary were trying to broker a deal with the Prime Minister and demanding a new style of government. In these talks Boris was the intermediary or if this carries on much longer will he become the assassin?
Some ministers are ready to say they will refuse to serve under May. Other members of the cabinet are actively engaged in trying to save Theresa May’s premiership on the basis that it is not immediately apparent who would take over if she steps down. Other senior members of the government have heard nothing – not a squeak! – from Number 10. There is astonishment at what is going on. “She’s f***ed,” says a key minister. “No, there is no vacancy and we cannot spend the next six months knocking lumps out of each other,” says another. “What a disaster,” says another.
What has introduced extra urgency and panic is the bizarre statement that the Prime Minister made on Friday afternoon after suffering a catastrophic election result in which she fell short of an overall majority. Her statement on Friday, widely expected to be contrite and heartfelt, was so detached and inappropriate that it had an electrifying effect.
There had been a mood in the upper reaches of the Tory tribe that if she had the numbers (and she does, just, with the DUP) then the best way forward was for her to continue at least in the short and medium term.
But the statement may have changed that, say MPs. It was unnerving, unsettling and unacceptable to a lot of senior Tories, to say nothing of the impact on the voters who will have had their concerns from the campaign about her confirmed. She is in shock and tired, but it was a performance that suggested she has failed to process what has happened and what it means. This is all very sad. May is a patriot and a decent person, but that might not be enough. We’re in country before party territory.
Here is one potential scenario explained to me by a furious minister. A senior member of the cabinet needs to be agreed on as the replacement, he says, with a whipping operation, starting immediately. That person can present themselves as the cabinet’s unanimous choice. The 1922 Committee can then canvas views and agree a way forward quickly on Monday morning. Might a bold or reckless backbencher want to stand too in such circumstances creating a contest? Is the country in the mood for a Tory leadership campaign? It is highly doubtful.
The skeleton “top five” cabinet is designed to head that off. But will it? With some organisation and a proper operation there could be a new PM in place on Monday, ahead of Brexit talks beginning on the 19th of June. This is the historic choice facing the cabinet tonight. Move, resign, support, or wait.
There will be plenty of time afterwards to deconstruct what went wrong for May. Safe to say, the 2017 election is easily the biggest screw-up by a Conservative party leadership since last year. Yet, even by the surreal standards of the summer of 2016, when David Cameron held a referendum on EU membership, lost it and had to resign, there is something special about what just happened to Theresa May, who is still (at time of writing) the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Just a month ago May was the Warrior Queen, an Elizabeth I figure in the mind of her biggest admirers. Icy, sure. But steadfast and ballsy with it. The voters had a less detailed impression. Just a vague sense that she had been the grown-up who turned up on the scene at the right moment last year during the crazy Tory leadership contest. Even though she was popular, it was – in the words of a prescient Tory sage early in the campaign – a popularity that could be measured as “a mile wide and an inch deep.”
So it turned out. Although no-one who suggested that May should go for an early election envisaged her presiding over the worst campaign since the Battle of Hastings with a manifesto that rained munitions down on Tory voters and contained no coherent message on the economy. What wasn’t in the script was a complete shitshow of a Tory campaign. It was a mind-bendingly awful effort. Inept, with no clear command and control structure until too late. It was by turns arrogant and confused. Stern and then shambolic. Creepy, then crap. Presidential and then pathetically pleading.
Still, it should not be forgotten that May had called an election, following advice for perfectly sensible reasons. It was not simply the benign state of the opinion polls. The sequencing of the Brexit talks demanded it. There are, or were until yesterday, two likely ways in which the talks can unfold and neither would have benefited from holding an election in 2019 or 2020 at a difficult moment. Knock it back to 2022, by going in 2017, that was the the theory.
Why? There would either be a satisfactory deal to leave in March 2019 with a two year transition period to smooth the uncoupling for both parties. The eurozone relies on London, Europe’s main capital market. The UK wants to trade.
Or, no deal would be done and Britain would have to make plans to step away without a settlement. A period of trying for status quo deals on subjects such as air travel and security would then unfold. Again, an election in the middle of this tricky adjustment or shortly afterwards would not be an ideal moment. That’s why she went early. But she made the most spectacular mess of it and the public figured her out.
Now? On Brexit? Who knows. There is a good team in place at DEXEU, the Department for Exiting the European Union, although without the comfort of a proper Commons majority their work becomes much more difficult and the starting position weaker in talks.
Anyway, more of that another time. First, the urgent question is an old question. How is the Queen’s government to be carried on? It simply can’t go on like this for more than 72 hours with the markets reopening on Monday morning and a terror campaign being waged against Britain.