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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Theresa May at sea as fragile Tories collapse into infighting

As the Conservative party gathers in Manchester for its annual conference, its leading lights are at each other’s throats

Theresa May has few friends to protect her as the Tories meet in Manchester. AFP PHOTO/Ilmars ZNOTINS
Theresa May has few friends to protect her as the Tories meet in Manchester. AFP PHOTO/Ilmars ZNOTINS

With the headlines on newspapers the day before their annual conference featuring two high-profile colleagues publicly trading blows, and with European officials dismissing out of hand the country’s attempts to leave the EU with some dignity intact, it’s fair to say that Theresa May’s Tory party meet in Manchester on Sunday in a fractious condition.

To compound their troubles, last week saw the opposition Labour party come together for their set-piece equivalent in Brighton in public unity. Leader Jeremy Corbyn delivered a very polished speech to an adoring audience, an address peppered with barbs and ridicule aimed at the Tories which resonated both inside and outside the conference hall.

It is difficult to think of a more stunning reversal of political fortunes than that which Mrs May has suffered in the last 15 months.

On July 11, 2016 she was elected unopposed as leader of the Tory party and thus became prime minister of Great Britain. The country was still in shock at the referendum result of June 23, just 18 days previously, when the decision to leave the EU had been taken prompting the resignation of then PM David Cameron.

During the limited campaign amongst the Conservatives’ senior members, she swiftly assumed the mantle of favourite in a field including showmen (Boris Johnson), coming men (Stephen Crabb), and darlings of the right (Andrea Leadsom and Liam Fox), and duly won after her rivals accepted Mrs May’s crushing strength among Tory MPs, who made up the electorate.

The views within the party and of voters were of Mrs May as a ‘safe pair of hands’; after all, she had negotiated six years at the Home Office before taking the top job, a department which had previously been the graveyard of political ambition (she lasted there longer than the four previous incumbents combined).

She swiftly added ruthlessness to the public’s perception of her as she instituted a cabinet reshuffle which was described by the Daily Telegraph, often seen as the house journal of the Conservative party, as a “brutal cull”. She sacked the chancellor George Osborne, very much a man of the previous regime, in humiliating fashion; something which we will see came back to haunt her.

She also cleaned out other Cameron appointees to cabinet such as Michael Gove, Oliver Letwin, Nicky Morgan and John Whittingdale. In a sop to the Leave wing of the party, she brought in the 'three musketeers' of Brexit: Boris Johnson as foreign secretary; David Davis as head of the Department for Exiting the EU; and Liam Fox as secretary of state for international trade.

Protected by her praetorian guard of special advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who had both worked at the Home Office, Mrs May sailed through the rest of 2016 as Labour struggled on the brink of a civil war under Mr Corbyn and the predominantly Eurosceptic and Tory-supporting press gave her its unrelenting support over pushing on with Brexit.

But by the time that the prime minister triggered Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union on March 29 this year, starting a two-year countdown to the secession of the United Kingdom from the EU, the cracks were beginning to show. There was widespread incredulity that the British approach to Brexit was to assume Europe would splinter in the face of the process and grant the UK exactly what it wanted.

However, as more and more opinion polls suggested that the Tories were in position to crush a flatlining Labour party, the clamour for the prime minister to call an early general election increased as MPs and newspaper columnists pointed out that the economic and political circumstances may never align so favourably again for her. The prime minister set off on a walking holiday in Wales during the Easter break in early April, and reportedly made up her mind to go to the country.

The decision was announced on April 18, with the date for the general election set for June 8, and the immediate reception was euphoric in some corners: the Daily Mail notoriously produced a front page in which it urged Mrs May to ‘Crush the saboteurs’, referring to anti-Brexit critics inside her own party and Labour, while The Sun predicted the election would see ‘Blue murder’.

Prescheduled local elections in early May saw the Tories moving forward in councils across the country, and Labour falling back, and the polls all pointed to the Conservatives gaining an enormous majority in the House of Commons and possibly even seeing the final destruction of their primary opponents.

However, as the campaign proper began, it sound became apparent that all was not well within the Tory party. Firstly, the prime minister herself proved to be terrible on the stump. Her emotionless and passion-free persona that was appreciated in power went badly wrong when the prime minister had to engage with normal people. She was stilted and reduced to robotically regurgitating meaningless slogans, such as promising a ‘strong and stable’ government.

She was soon dubbed the ‘Maybot’ by journalists following the campaign, and was increasingly thrown curveball questions by hacks sick of being taken for granted as they were trucked from one industrial estate packed with preselected Tory audiences to another. Her approach contrasted massively with the verve and energy the previously moribund Mr Corbyn was now showing, as he took to the streets of the country and was mobbed everywhere he went by crowds of young and old people alike.

The key moment when things went irrevocably wrong was the launch of the Tory manifesto, the blueprint for what the party would do over the next five years. The document was essentially compiled by Mr Timothy, a self-styled 'blue sky thinker' who put measures in it that often seemed at odds with traditional conservatism. One of these, a proposal to raise money from elderly people to pay for their social care, became known as the ‘dementia tax’ and was ditched within days.

Although some polls showed a narrowing of the gap between the parties, it still appeared that the Tories would achieve a comfortable majority on June 8. Instead, at 10pm on that Thursday night, the exit polls revealed that Mrs May had succeeded in losing her narrow majority in the Commons and that her gamble, which had seemingly been a no-lose banker, had failed miserably.

Within hours of the election, if recent reports in the newspapers are to be believed, Mrs May’s cabinet had begun to turn on her and people such as Mr Johnson were already canvassing support for leadership challenges against her. Days after the election, it became apparent that the positions of Mr Timothy and Mrs Hill, who had a ferocious reputation for bullying ministers, were untenable and the prime minister lost her closest advisers.

She also had to set about building a working coalition in the Commons, and the decision to work with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a right-wing and socially conservative party in Northern Ireland whose ten seats would narrowly take the Tories past the 326 seats they needed to hold the balance of power in Parliament, was not a popular one.

In exchange for their support, the DUP demanded increased spending in Northern Ireland of £1bn – this at a time when the government was promising to maintain the period of austerity that had been in place over the previous seven years for the rest of the country. It was also feared that the party, which has promoted anti-gay policies and opposes abortion, would impose similar demands on social policy on the government.

And then, less than a week after the election, the tragedy of Grenfell Tower occurred. The tenor of the government’s response to the disaster, which saw up to 80 people die in a high-rise inferno in west London, was set by the prime minister’s emotionless reaction while she was shown round the site by firefighters and police officers the day after the fire. She spoke to none of the survivors, and within hours the arrival of Mr Corbyn, who did meet families of the dead, contrasted strongly.

Suddenly, the chorus of support for her from the press, had largely disappeared. In the wake of Grenfell she found even papers like the Sun and Mail criticising the government. And in the capital, her found no greater critic than the Evening Standard, a London-wide local newspaper which had appointed, to the surprise of many, her nemesis Mr Osborne as editor in May 2017. The paper began to run daily front pages that ridiculed the prime minister throughout summer as it became increasingly clear that the wheels were coming off the government's Brexit policy.

Mrs May now finds herself sustained in office by one thing; the fear of her party that if she fell there would have to be another election and Mr Corbyn would sweep to power. Polls confirm that were one to be held at the moment then Labour would beat the Tories by 43% to 39%, enough to see them installed as a minority government.

While they allow her to carry on as a political shield, her primary rivals continue to sharpen their swords and make brief sallies into the public eye to flaunt their leadership credentials. Mr Johnson published a 4,000-word ‘manifesto’ in the Telegraph last weekend to court the right of the party, while the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson smacked him down in The Times newspaper on Saturday.

The Conservatives, often described as a fearsome election-winning machine which values holding onto power above all, have been reduced to an ungovernable rabble. The job of uniting this party as well as delivering a successful Brexit for the UK appears to be beyond Mrs May.