UK Politics

What Theresa May should do

BY Bruce Anderson   /  11 July 2016

Talk about shock and awe: the combination will ensure that Theresa May’s Premiership has a honeymoon period. For a start, people will want to know who she is. Equally, sensible right-wingers who have expressed doubts will want to be proved wrong – just as sensible Remainers will hope (against hope?) that the Brexiters are right.

The Queen’s government must be carried on. In difficult times, Tories should seek a successful leader: the country, a strong leader.

So can Mrs May do it? Can she transform a triumphant campaign – for which congratulations are in order – into a sound Premiership? Perhaps she can, but only if she raises her game. Up to now, she has been a difficult colleague and a suspicious boss. She has shown little interest in harmonious relations with her colleagues: even less, in similar relations with her officials. That will have to change. If it does not, she, the party and the country are headed for trouble. Unless she is to be a second Gordon Brown, she will have to deploy charm, trust and intellectual self-confidence.

She ought to start that process by choosing her government and her No.10 team on one simple basis: ability. Disregard previous allegiances, forget previous resentments: she should ask two questions of those whom she proposes to employ. First, could you serve me loyally? Second, would you have the moral courage to stand up to me if you thought I was wrong – and to remind me of this conversation if I took umbrage?

When she announces her appointments, it would be desirable for the general reaction to be: “a few surprises, quite a few disappointments, but there is a common theme. Premier May has made her appointments on merit.”

Unfortunately, that will not be as easy as it sounds. This is the problem of party management, and of satisfying the Brexiters. Some of them are able. I hope that John Whittingdale keeps his job. DCMS is a hazardous post. Its holder is always in line for promotion, or for the sack. But there ought to be another consideration: performance. Mr Whittingdale has done well. A Brexiter from time immemorial, he fought honourably. He is the sort of safe pair of hands whom PMs come to value. Mrs May should keep him.

At this moment, no-one would give Michael Gove a safe-hands award. But despite his naivete, he deserves a second chance. At education, he started a crucial reform process, even though he came close to sabotaging it by political clumsiness. Not all teachers are Trotskyites. Not even all Department of Education officials are Trotskyites.

But aided and abetted by Dominic Cummings, one of the most destructive Spads ever, Michael seemed to think that it was infra dig to seek allies. Parents who ought to have welcomed new Tory policies failed to do so because they distrusted Michael Gove. Despite being in favour of traditional learning, Michael forgot one of the wisest Latin maxims: suaviter in modo, fortiter in re. Instead, he was like a bull who carried his china-shop around with him. The outgoing PM was right to move him.

Gove is now ready to fight for other necessary reforms, in the prison service. The new PM should tell him to crack on, while insisting that Mr Cummings does not become a Spad. She might also recall Owen Paterson, another honourable Brexiter, while promoting Dominic Raab. It is to be hoped that she will ignore the claims of Priti Patel and Penny Mordaunt, ridiculously over-promoted already. As a female PM who wants to be seen as a second Margaret Thatcher, Mrs May should follow Mrs T’s example. People should be promoted on merit. The same should apply to demotions. To replace Michael Gove and in search of emollience, David Cameron chose Nicky Morgan. That was a mistake.

That leads us to the dim and the paranoiacs. The ranks of the Brexiters include at least thirty MPs who are barely fit to be the stray dog-catcher of Little Piddleton. I am not, of course, referring to the Bones, the Hollobones, the hollower-still bones: to that grave statesman Bernard Jenkin, that serious figure Nadine Dorries – still less to Andrew Bridgen or Stewart Jackson. Perish the thought.

But if Mrs May is to run a government, as opposed to a debating society in a lunatic asylum, she will need to cope with the whines and grievances of the utterly unworthy. If everything works out for her, people will begin to forget who was a Brexiteer, who a Remainer. But the dunderhead wing of the Brexit movement will remember. (Memo from new PM to new Chairman of the Tory Party: please devise a selection procedure for candidates which excludes morons, obsessives and bores: and especially those with all three characteristics.)

There is also the Boris question. What does she do with him? Something like DCMS, all bells and whistles? He would merely take the chance to build up his own popularity. A serious department? There would follow a serious cock-up, along the lines of journey times in London. Mrs May would be advised to grow in stature, to display generosity of spirit, magnanimity – but not towards Boris. He should be excluded from the general amnesty.

Anyway, it would be wrong to end on a negative note. Those who wish the country well should wish Theresa May well. As for those of us who have been critics: let us hope that she proves us wrong.