“Never complain and never explain,” Disraeli said, and the Prime Minister may take his advice. Last weekend, it was reported that she will apologise to party members at October’s conference for last spring’s election campaign. And yesterday, it was claimed that she won’t, after all. Which course should she take?
There is a case for arguing that her great Victorian predecessor was right. Never look back. Don’t admit weakness. Move the conversation on. Fix any problems behind the scenes, rather than beat yourself up in public. Put the focus where it should be – on the future that you want to see for the country, and why Jeremy Corbyn is a danger to it. Toujours l’audace.
Furthermore, Theresa May is not as adaptable as, say, Tony Blair was in his prime. If the latter had self-created a problem on the scale of the Conservative manifesto social care pledge, one can imagine him gazing bambi-eyed at his interviewer, confessing that he’d messed up, promising fervently that the mistake wouldn’t be repeated…and gettting away with it.
The Prime Minister lacks this thespian quality. An apology half-stammered out, and apparently offered with reluctance, might be worse than none at all. Finally, she could always say she is sorry on, say, The Andrew Marr Show on the conference weekend, rather than in the conference hall itself. (Marr was the venue last year for her announcement that Article 50 would be moved by the end of March.)
None the less, Disraeli’s times aren’t ours. He operated before the age of universal franchise, had no poll ratings to be collapsed, and – let’s be frank – never threw away an election that he was expected to win comfortably. He didn’t have to deal with the 24/7 news cycle – or, rather, with what was the cycle before social media destroyed any cycle at all.
Theresa May’s ratings with party activists are poor. Over half of them want her to quit as leader before the next election, if our monthly suvey is correct, and roughly one in seven want her gone now. Her ratings are slowly improving, but confidence in her leadership is not high. She must continue to mend relations with party members.
In the aftermath of the election, when it seemed possible that she would be toppled immediately, she addressed the 1922 committee. She took responsibility for the campaign, said that she would stay on as leader for “as long as you want me”, and said that in the meantime “I got us into this mess, and I’m going to get her out”.
The meeting marked the start of that slow recovery in her position: one that has, at least for the moment, reduced the prospect of a leadership challenge. A little humility can go a long way – especially if you’re struggling for “permission to be heard” in the wake of an election that you called yourself, and which went wrong.
Were the Prime Minister to take the same course on the first day of conference, she would clear the air for the week that would follow. Common sense suggests brief opening remarks on the Sunday, as last year, in which reminds listeners of the election’s upside (after all, the Conservatives did win 42 per cent of the vote) but takes responsibility for the campaign’s mistakes.
It is unlikely that May will lead the Tories into the next election. But whether she does or not, she must rebuild it, govern Britain and negotiate Brexit – the most formidable triple political challenge in recent history. An apology for the campaign is a part of that work. As an activist herself since her teens, the Prime Minister will know it.