Enough is enough: The case against Theresa May

The last time the Tory Party was this divided was in 1846 when the Peel administration pushed through the repeal of the Corn Laws and was swept out of office by a backbench rebellion. Leading that rebellion was a relative newcomer to the Conservative benches in the House of Commons, one Benjamin Disraeli, argues Patrick Sullivan

Time to go: Theresa May
Patrick Sullivan, Political Editor
On 27 October 2018 15:18

The last time the Tory Party was this divided was in 1846 when the Peel administration pushed through the repeal of the Corn Laws and was swept out of office by a backbench rebellion. Leading that rebellion was a relative newcomer to the Conservative benches in the House of Commons, one Benjamin Disraeli.

As is so often the case in history a leader, in this case a British Prime Minister, was felled by someone they had failed to take seriously. Disraeli was far too flamboyant a character for the earthy Peel to take seriously, and he had dismissed out of hand Disraeli's written request to join his cabinet. Disraeli in correspondence with Peel had entreated the Prime Minister to utilise his talents on the front benches and was ignored. The debate over the Corn Laws bore similarity to today's arguments over Brexit, in that both dealt with trade and specifically free trade. In his 1841 General Election campaign, Peel had ran on a platform of defending the Corn Laws – it was his “Brexit, means Brexit” moment.

There is still debate as to whether Peel was right to end the Corn Laws, which so benefited the farmers in the Tory heartland but Peel was convinced and he pushed through repeal of the laws regardless. This unsurprisingly drew huge resistance from those Conservative backbenchers representing “shire” seats; which was most of them. Peel unlike the present occupant of No. 10 was a political giant. He would not have be being illogical if he thought he could swat away his opposition like flies; he certainly acted that way. Politics, as life, is an unpredictable game and Peel had not counted upon Disraeli to ride to defence of the landed gentry, especially as Disraeli himself was not from amongst their ranks.

Dizzy, as Disraeli became popularly known, was ruthless and determined in his attacks on Peel. The acrimony between the two men, and their respective camps became so intense that it resulted in the still young Conservative Party being split apart. Peel and his followers left the Party in a huff, after successfully pushing the repeal of the Corn Laws through Parliament. This group, which became known as “Peelites” included such significant Parliamentarians as future Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone., who would never caucus with the Conservative Party again and who remained bitter towards Disraeli until beyond the bitter end.

Disraeli would eventually ascend to lead the Conservative Party and become Prime Minister but at the cost of having to endure waiting through over 20 years in the wilderness from the moment the split occurred. If it was power Disraeli wanted, he got it but he took the long way round getting there. The Whigs were to dominate this period of politics assimilating the Peelities officially into their ranks forming the Liberal Party in 1859. Gladstone would eventually become the first real Liberal Prime Minister.

Disraeli would remake the Conservative Party as the Party of Tory Democracy and be remembered as one of its greatest Prime Minister's. Things did eventually work out for the Conservative Party in the long run with it finding itself becoming the natural of Government. It was fortunate that Disraeli was that rare politician who could knock Humpty Dumpty off the brick wall and then be able to put him back together again. There is no Disraeli in the modern Conservative Party and, I fear, if broken it will not be able to get back together again. Even with a Disraeli it took the Party over 20 years in the wilderness before it meaningfully held power again.

The country was lucky because Prime Minister's such as Lord John Russell or the patriotic Lord Palmerston was solid stewards of the national ship.

The same is not true today and the threat of a Socialist government in this country is growing every day Mrs. May selfishly clings onto office. It is likely that if the pressures this Prime Minister has allowed to be exerted upon her Party contine to grow; a breaking point will be reached and the Tory Party as we have come to know it will shatter into a million little pieces. It will confirm the suspicions of those who thought the 2016 referendum represented a fundamental change in British Politics and maybe just as the Peelities found a home with the Whigs, maybe the Cameroons will befriend their Blairite friends on the centre left and form a new political party. This would all be interesting if we had a responsible alternative but the stakes are too high for Conservative MPs to be derelict in their duty to the nation. This is not a Catch-22 situation where you are damned if you do or you are damned if you don't.

You are damned if you don't, believe me. The reason for the high stakes we are living with today are the direct result of Theresa May's own decisions. This Prime Minister is the Queen of Unforced Errors and certainly not the person you want rolling the dice for you at the Casino. Her gamble to hold a snap election when the Conservative Parliamentary Party and Conservative Campaign Headquarters was not ready for it, led to the loss of a working majority which the Prime Minister would have found very useful over the past fortnight. She simply did not realise that when it comes to political campaigns, a failure to prepare is also preparing to fail. Wanting the backing of true-Brexit Conservative MPs she triggered Article 50 which set into motion the countdown and establish the March 19th 2019 deadline, which has beleaguered her Premiership, as of late.

This is yet another example where the Prime Minister's decisions have left the country suffering the worst of both worlds. She has actually angered the true Brexit MPs much more through her weak negotiating stance than she would have if she had actually waited to develop a negotiating strategy before firing the starting gun, which was triggering Article 50. Instead of ensuring a set in stone date of departure from the European Union, the Prime Minister, predictably, had to extend the transition anyway. This cost the government the additional preparation time, waiting to trigger Article 50 would have given it and has in a tragic irony also meant that the U.K. Is having to stay in the E.U. For much longer than it would have otherwise.

All of Mrs. May's recent problems have been of her own making and it has been the country that has suffered. If she continues to lead that Tory Party, her MPs need start looking at their post-political careers because it is very likely she will be the last leader of the Tory Party and all because of unforced errors. This is not just a Brexit related problem; this is a fatal flaw with Mrs. May's management style, for which many examples can be found throughout her career. In his 2013 book, In It Together: The Inside Story of the Coalition Government, Matthew D' Ancona reported: May was almost as famous in Whitehall for her caution and indecision as she was in the media for her kitten heels – a preoccupation that said more about media sexism than it did about her.

She could drive her officials mad with he vacillations – notably over control orders, the restrictive arrangements for terror suspects, and whether or not to abolish them. “Theresa May – but, then again, she may not” ran the joke That someone with such a well deserved reputation for indecision should have the chutzpah to run on a campaign slogan of Strong and Stable beggars belief. Still due to an act of political treachery worthy of Marcus Brutus himself, Michael Gove sensing an opportunity to seize the crown for himself knifed his old friend and colleague, Boris Johnson, in the back in the most swift and brutal of manners. Boris' campaign was deflated and Theresa May soon became the consensus candidate for all sides; showing once again that when it comes to choosing leaders, the Tory Party really is deciding which candidate to vote against rather than vote for.

Speaking to France 24, just 5 days after the Prime Minister's calamity, coughing Conservative conference speech in 2017, I laid out the main reason for Conservative MPs to support Mrs. May's leadership: I think the Conservative Party's tune at the moment is Better the Devil you know, because what happens is, those that are afraid of Boris Johnson, and a hard Brexit and Boris Johnson's (laughs) undiplomatic diplomacy, will keep Theresa May, and then on the other side, those that are afraid of a George Osborne candidate, trust Theresa May to deliver some sort of Brexit, so again they are happy with Theresa May.

It doesn't necessarily mean that they are all May-ites but I think out of all of the options they have, she is the best one, for both sides” The logic was sound but it failed to account for the Prime Minister being a bulldozer and one with the office and infrastructure with which to mount a ruthless and coordinated campaign against her enemies.

Theresa May is no shy retiring violet, the Prime Minister might be female but she is no damsel in distress. You have to have a degree of ruthlessness to climb to the top the greasy pole as Disraeli once so memorably put it. The word around Westminster is this is a leader who has ordered so many political hits, it would shock even Tony Soprano. She has shown the steel of a mob boss, unfortunately not when dealing with the European Union but by putting a gun to her Party's head threatening to cause chaos on the way out of the door.

Wobbly MPs, I tell you the gun is not loaded, the Empress has no clothes. Whatever disruption ending the unmitigated disaster of this Premiership might cause, it is worth it for saving the Conservative Party and much more importantly for saving the country.

Theresa May has managed to suggest the worst deal in human history with her Chequers deal. She failed to accept advice from the very best negotiator, the author of The Art of the Deal, President Trump who has been rebuffed on his generous offers to help Britain on the subject for which he literally wrote the book. Instead, of being the compromise candidate over this past year, the Prime Minister has managed the impressive task of irritating both sides. She is asking the Conservative Party to settle for fear they could get nobody better. She will ask MPs to sign on to a flawed Brexit deal, saying we should settle because we can get no better. We are British, damn it, we do have never settled, we do not settle now and we will never settle.

If the greatest argument for her Premiership is that we must settle, then she has already lost and I don't think the nation wants us to go on losing with her any longer. It is time to look past this Prime Minister and look forward, to new, brighter horizons.

Those calculating to have promising careers in post-May politics are now looking to position themselves accordingly. The Conservative Party has been notoriously ruthless when it comes to removing leaders. If they see the tide turning against Ms. May, they will not want to go down with a sinking ship. This makes reassurance of existing support the order of the day in Government circles.

Party bosses are frantically buttering up nervous Tory MPs. Many fear the axe, especially under an insurgency driven Johnson administration. No has worked harder to shore up support for the PM, in an attempt to play for time than former Michael Portillo loyalist, Robbie Gibb.

As Toby Helm reported in Sunday's Observer: Robbie Gibb, May’s director of communications, has been trying to halt the drift of opinion against her by holding dinners in No 10 with groups of eight or so backbenchers at a time, trying to talk them round to what should be normal – loyalty to their leader. Still, the Prime Minister won't be able to sleep easy, until she is able to adequately address the serious concerns raised about her Government’s approach to Brexit. Little has been done to quiet the unrest amongst her Party's rank and file.

This is surprising as Mrs. May, more than anyone, should know the importance of grassroots support, having famously told George Osborne that “he needed to get to know his Party better.” Sources close to the European Research Group have confirmed that they have had long had the letters needed to meet the 48 letter threshold required to force a vote of no confidence in the Party Leader. These have been written and ready to send for a while now, should the need arise.

The reason that these letters have not already been sent to Graham Brady, who as chairman of the powerful 1922 Committee would be responsible for administering any no-confidence post, is that the Brexiteers want to provide the Prime Minister with the maximum opportunity to rethink. Mrs. May was given a window of time, to take heed of the sentiment within the party rank and file of her Chequers proposal. I would argue that the time is now to close the window. To wait much longer would be to leave it too late. If a vote of no confidence were to result in a divisive party leadership contest, the responsibility would fall squarely on the shoulders of the Prime Minister, as she will not be able to say that she wasn’t given a fair warning. I do not think that need be the case, we must remember there is precedent for the Conservative Party having no confidence in its leader within the last 20 years. When the Conservative Party last forced its leader out, a number of potential candidates announced they would rally around a unity candidate who turned out to be Michael Howard. They put aside personal ambition for the good of their Party.

Chief amongst these was David Davis who announced he would not stand for the leadership within 45 minutes of the vote of no-confidence in Iain Duncan-Smith being called. He was the favourite to win but felt the Party needed to come back together before he could committee to a potentially fractious contest. David Davis gave up his best chance to become Prime Minister in order to save his Party. Today that Party could unite around Davis as the best chance to save Brexit and our country. It would be great poetic justice to have a man who spent a almost a decade as the leader in waiting, only to spend almost another decade in the political wilderness, finally in our modern hour of greatest need, finally get the power and responsibility that has so long been waiting for him.

Conservative MPs who tonight are nervous over “rocking the boat” and forcing a vote of no confidence should bear in mind the words of W.B. Yeats in his poem The Second Coming. It is likely that this will be the end result of the strains Mrs. May is imposing on country and Party: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world I would tell the Prime Minister that she doth protest too much about the current crisis she created not being about her. It is such a transparent falsehood that her nemesis is exposed for the entire world to see. You have put your ego ahead of the rest of us. I must echo the sentiments of Leo Amery, as he ended his great Commons speech, which forced the arch appeaser Neville Chamberlain to resign the Premiership in 1940; making way for Winston Churchill and our finest hour. Closing his oration, Amery reached back to Oliver Cromwell declaration to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.

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