As tradition decrees, the incumbent Government bring the curtain down on the conference season; yes, the SNP and Plaid Cymru are being customarily contrary by holding theirs later in October, but the current run of party conferences that began with the Greens at the start of September ends next week with the Tories, who take to the stage for the first time with their new leader and our new PM. The Conservatives are less than a year-and-a-half into their latest bout of running the country, though so much has happened since May 2015 that it would be foolish to assume just because Her Majesty’s Opposition has been tearing itself apart, the Government have cause to be smug and secure in their position. As Times journalist Matthew Parris pointed out whilst observing the post-leadership challenge Labour shindig in Liverpool, the Tories are far from unified at the moment and could well be there for the taking if their opponents weren’t so divided.
David Cameron’s decision to step down as an MP not much more than twelve months on from the point when he was looking forward to five more years at the helm has been interpreted as a generous nod to his replacement, perhaps mindful of what a persistent backbench thorn in Thatcher’s side Ted Heath was throughout her premiership. His resignation as PM was a foregone conclusion when he’d so vigorously backed the wrong Referendum horse, but few anticipated him retiring from frontline politics completely. Of course, Theresa May had already instigated a clear-out of Dave’s closest confidantes within the Cabinet, even going so far as to rub salt in the Notting Hill Tory wounds by inviting Boris and David Davis back in from the Westminster wilderness. However, the ultimate Brexit baddie, Michael Gove, remains in the Commons and it will be interesting to see how his response to May’s administration shapes the Conservative Party over the next three or four years.
It’s difficult to get a grip on Theresa May, to be honest – and I don’t mean that in a remotely sexual sense. Whereas Dave was a gift to satirists, impressionists and cartoonists with the always-amusing concept of a posh boy desperately trying his damndest not to be posh generating endless jokes at his expense, May is more of an unknown quantity. She may have been Home Secretary for six years, but Gordon Brown had been Chancellor for ten when he finally got his hands on the key to No.10, and nobody really knew how he’d shape up in the top job – not very well, as it turned out; yet I don’t think Mrs May has really had the chance to show what she can or can’t do. Her first opportunity to address her party as leader will come next week, and the hard work starts thereafter.
Though doing her best to exude an air of authority, Theresa May is not in the easiest of positions; she grabbed the leadership of both her party and country in the middle of an unprecedented crisis and attempted to portray herself as a ‘safe pair of hands’, promoting fellow dullards such as Philip Hammond, as though that somehow represented stability whilst the rest of the political establishment was engaged in the headless chicken dance.
Though she herself was a Remainer (albeit along Jeremy Corbyn lines, virtually invisible during the great debates), she has inherited a democratic decision she didn’t vote for and is obliged to carry it out, despite the mind-boggling complexities of the process. She also has to deal with two other constituent countries of the UK that voted differently to England and Wales, not to mention the opportunities for exploitation that presents at Holyrood and Stormont.
The fault-lines within the Tory Party that the Referendum exposed won’t be healed overnight; they had decades to ferment, after all, and Europe has been at the root of virtually every schism in Conservative ranks since 1975. Brexit may mean Brexit, but the drawn-out duty of extricating the UK from the EU has fallen to a PM who wanted to stay part of the Brussels club. Any dithering or deviating from the mission will inevitably stoke the ire of the prominent Leave rump on the Tory backbenches, of whom Gove is destined to be the most vocal. Yes, giving Boris, Davis and Dr Fox (no, not that one) responsibility to deal with the unenviable task ahead is probably a shrewd move on May’s part, though the buck will ultimately stop with her, and it could define her premiership if she’s not careful.
There is also the perennial subject of a possible Snap Election, which if it comes at all seems more likely to come in the spring than the autumn we’ve now entered. From all that was said during their own conference, Labour are certainly banking on it, though the insistence of Jezza and McDonnell that this may be a likelihood does feel a bit like a Kamikaze pilot hoping a US warship appears on the horizon. However, May’s hands are essentially tied by the rules laid down by the Coalition of 2010-15 and the fixed-term Parliament law; apparently, Nick Clegg is now criticising the Tories for carrying on under a different leader without first going to the country, yet he was as responsible as anyone for limiting the powers of the PM to call a General Election when the climate is at is most opportune for a serving Prime Minister to do so.
The fact remains that we have a political figurehead the electorate didn’t vote for, inheriting office from a man they did; and whilst this is hardly a unique situation, one would imagine Theresa May would prefer a mandate of her own rather than one given to her predecessor; maybe only the law introduced by that predecessor is preventing her from acting on her instincts.
It’s still too early to predict what kind of leader only our second female Prime Minister will turn out to be, but her first real platform for setting out her plans will come next week in Birmingham. Expect a token show of support to contrast with Labour’s bitter divisions; but behind the contrived PR sheen there’s a long and potentially very difficult road ahead that could well reveal the mettle May is made of.
© The Editor