If you are a politician and want a hush-hush meeting with another one, there are three basic rules to follow. Rule One is not to have it in public – over lunch, for example. Rule Two is that if it has to take place over lunch, it shouldn’t be held in Westminster. And Rule Three, the most important of all, is that if it has to take place over lunch at Westminster, it shouldn’t be held at Quirinale, Great Peter Street.
This is because one is certain to be seen there by other politicians, lobbyists, journalists and other members of the Westminster Village. So I think we can rule out the possibility that Theresa May was holding some sort of secret leadership election planning session with Liam Fox – or a confidential EU referendum-related discussion – when she was spotted breaking bread with him in Quirinale on Thursday. Furthermore, it was far from the first time that the two have had a Westminster-based lunch together.
That said, the meeting seems to have stirred up the papers a bit, and the jitteriness of these pre-European Summit weeks isn’t the only reason. “Dr Fox, who is popular among grassroots Conservatives, is believed to be supporting the Home Secretary…in a future Tory leadership contest,” declares the Daily Telegraph. “We feel that Theresa May is going to campaign for us to leave and we sent Liam on a charm offensive to try and make that happen,” a ‘Eurosceptic source’ tells the Sun. Guido got there first, complete with a link to the menu, featuring Rombo, arancia e cipolla di Tropea at £27.50, Cervo in crosta di scalogno con cavolo nero e castagne at a mere £22.00, Branzino intero alla griglia at – but stop, stop!
What to make of all this? Since friends of the Home Secretary could teach the residents of the Grande Chartreuse a lesson or two about silence, I think we have to look to friends of Dr Fox. The thrust of the reporting is that he has become – or has been for a while – an admirer of the Home Secretary; hopes to return to senior office in the event of her becoming the next Party leader, and wants her rather than Boris Johnson to hold that office. All this fits what this site knows. May has seniority as a holder of a great office of state, but isn’t the sort of person to run a George Osborne-type election machine among Conservative MPs. Fox certainly has his followers – though it is hard to say how many are Tory MPs – but doesn’t hold office. These strengths and weaknesses are complimentary.
All that can safely be said is that any May-Fox alliance would have a smack of grown-upness about it, though some Conservative MPs might view it as also having a smack of the past. The Home Secretary would bring her seniority, modernising past and immigration-focused present to the table. Fox clearly finds that last aspect agreeable to him, and would add his own “Thatcherite, Unionist, Atlanticist and Eurosceptic” profile (as he describes it). I doubt if he will mind the reports of the lunch; my guess is that May will be less pleased.
A final word on the speculation about her view on EU membership. If she says that she wants to see the results of the renegotiation then I believe…that she wants to see the results of the negotiation: May is a very straight shooter. But there can be no doubt that immigration control has become increasingly important to her – hence her remarkable speech to Party Conference last autumn.
Leave supporters will thus be disappointed if she eventually supports Remain. So there is a sense of her having stirred expectations which may be not be fulfilled, which in turn would not help her leadership aspirations. But there it is. She is rather straight-down-the-line, as I say, and presumably knows what she’s about. The longer she has served in the Home Office, the more she has looked her own woman.