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Theresa May

We knew that we’d won the Conservative leadership election of 2001 as soon as we saw the polling.  It told us, first, that the main issue for Party members was the EU and, second, that their views on it were those of Iain Duncan Smith rather than Ken Clarke.  That was well before the ballot.  Its result was exactly as expected.  Duncan Smith, of whose campaign team I was part, was victorious.

Fifteen years have gone since that contest, and though much has changed, much is also the same.  Party membership has fallen.  Many who then voted have died or left the Party – or simply dropped off the computers.  After ten years of David Cameron, many members will be Cameroon.  But some fundamentals are unchanged.  The EU issue still matters for Party members.  Over 60 per cent of them were for Brexit.  Theresa May was not.

The triple attack on May will be that she has been a bad Home Secretary, doesn’t share members’ values, and won’t really lead Britain out of the EU.  The first charge probably won’t stick, since it relies on the simultaneous claim that immigration can only be controlled if Britain is outside the EU, and May has failed to control it while Britain has been inside the EU.  Nor is the second likely to work.  Her critics could be more successful with the third.

In short, if May can convince on Brexit, she’ll win. If she doesn’t, she could lose.  Her camp is keen that the election not be focused on the EU issue to the detriment of other ones – as is evident from the launch speech she is making today in Birmingham.  But until it has been negotiated, she may not find it easy to move on from it.  Brexit is, you might say, the bump in the road.  Here are ten things that she should do as soon as possible:

  • Show a road map to Brexit. May doesn’t have to display ever detail of the landscape of her journey to lead Britain out of the EU, but she does need to show how she will reach her destination.  That means not only displaying a route – complete with an outline plan for the economy, one for trade talks, and one for foreign policy – but establishing a timetable.
  • Find a date for moving Article 50 or for a Brexit vote (or for both).  There is a trade-off between speed and success.  On the one hand, moving Article 50 sets leaving in motion, but its critics view its terms as narrow and inflexible.  They don’t want Britain to be hemmed in by the two year timetable in question.  On the other hand, not moving it might provide a better timetable but – say some – taking this course risks never leaving at all.  One way or the other, May has to offer an answer, or she risks having a date for moving A of her later in the contest, which would do her casue no good.  She could set a date, along the lines of the plan David Davis outlines on this site today, for moving Article 50.  Or she could name one by which her Government would put the necessary measures for leaving to a Commons vote.  Chris Grayling is reported this morning to say that May would trigger Article 50 at “around the end of this year”.
  • Make it clear that immigration will be lower.  If there is to be a trade-off between single market access and controlling our borders (which some dispute), she must explain in public what she is apparently saying in private: that the latter comes first, and that numbers must come down.  She claims that as Home Secretary, EU migration stopped her achieving this goal.  Now she has a chance to do so.
  • Take a lead on trade talks.  Sajid Javid is already busy jetting back and forth to attempt kick-starting these.  He’s been in India.  He’s going to America, China, and South Korea.  As James Forsyth wrote recently, May could say that she will lead some of these herself.  David Cameron liked to lead trade delegations personally.  May has the seniority to do so – and the stakes are much higher.
  • Form a “Team of Rivals”…  Cameron is stepping down.  Boris Johnson is out of the contest.  So is Michael Gove, the man who brought him down.  The Tory stage looks like Hamlet at the end of the play.  May should breathe some life into these dead bones by assembling a Lincoln-style “Team of Rivals” – which is a matter of practical necessity in any event, since her government will have no working majority.  There are signs that she intends to do this.  Her administration will need a post-Brexit economic strategy, a new foreign policy, immigration to be lowered, and negotiations to be led by a Leave supporter, as she has promised.  That means making use of the talents of Gove, Johnson and Stephen Crabb – not to mention Andrea Leadsom, who must take a senior post.  Gove could lead on social justice.  Johnson should be offered a Cabinet position.
  • …Without George Osborne.  Cameron is resigning because his Remain campaign failed, and he must therefore take the consequences.  Osborne is in the same position, since he co-led it.  One of the main sources of anger against politicians is that they don’t take responsibility for their failures.  So were the Chancellor simply to waltz back to his post – or another Cabinet one – the new Government would get off to a very bad start.
  • …But with the senior Brexiteers who are supporting her campaign… May will want to lead a broad-based Government.  That should include members of the Tory Left, such as Nicky Morgan; senior Leadsom supporters like Iain Duncan Smith; and the senior Brexiteers who are supporting her, such as Chris Grayling, David Davis, Liam Fox and Priti Patel.
  • …And using other talent from outside.  Daniel Hannan is not signed up to the May campaign – and neither is our columnist an MP -  but he knows the EU institutions well.  Many Labour MPs in Northern and Midlands seats especially will not want to frustrate the referendum verdict, since they will fear voters taking a Scotland-style revenge on them if they do.  Gisela Stuart would be a tried and tested route in to them.
  • Strike the right balance in dealing with UKIP.  Arron Banks and company want to fold UKIP, split the Conservatives, and form a new party.  Obviously, this ploy must be resisted.  But many Tories and UKIP members worked together during the referendum, and May would be wise to recognise this.  UKIP is under-represented in the Lords: Nigel Farage should go there, and Douglas Carswell should be found a new role if he wants one.  (He has a serious interest in Africa, having spent his childhood in Uganda.)
  • Pacify Scotland. The biggest domestic political risk in the Brexit process is that the Government gains it but somehow loses Scotland.  May needs to work out a package that offers gains for Scotland without fuelling nationalist sentiment – and make an early visit there as Prime Minister, working closely with Ruth Davidson, who is supporting her candidacy.  For example, she could make it clear that many of the powers returned from Brussels will go straight to Holyrood.

There’s plenty more in addition to these Brexit-related points.  For example, May needs to spell out her social justice programme (on which she today makes a strong start); to show how she will revive the voluntary party, and to produce solid polling that shows she has more election-winning appeal than her rival.

But she will find it difficult to move the conversation on to her broader plans unless she can first convince Party members that she means it on Brexit.  For her, the subject is like a key.  It is her way of unlocking the door to the hearts of much of the membership.  Once the door is open, she can enter the room, but not perhaps before.

Tomorrow: How Leadsom could govern.

225 comments for: If May can convince on Brexit, she’ll win. If she doesn’t, she could lose.

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