Conservative Politics

The Challenges Facing Theresa May

11 Jul 2016 at 14:13

I tweeted this earlier…


And no, I wasn’t referring to the fact that within six minutes Labour had sent out two press releases, one calling for an immediate general election and the second announcing a Labour Party leadership contest.

As of now, we effectively have a new Prime Minister. With Andrea Leadsom quitting the race Theresa May is about to be crowned leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. While I feel that Andrea Leadsom has been treated appallingly by a blood-thirsty media I do think she has done the right thing by quitting the race. Yes there will be siren voices among the Conservative Party membership who cannot reconcile themselves to the fact they won’t have been ale to vote in a proper contest, but in the end it’s surely in the national interest to have this settled now.

As I write this, Sky News are speculating that Theresa May could be in Number Ten by the end of the day. It’s possible but unlikely, I’d have thought. Surely it makes sense for her to have a few days to gather her thoughts and plan her administration. I doubt whether she’s thought very deeply about that up to now. Also, it means David Cameron would do a final PMQs on Wednesday as his prime ministerial swansong. So I suspect Theresa May will take over the reins on Thursday or Friday.

So what kind of Prime Minister will Theresa May be, and will she be tempted or pressured into calling an early general election. Let’s deal with that one first. In these circumstances all opposition parties call for an election. Labour did in 1963. The Tories did in 1976. Labour did in 1990. The Tories did in 2007. There is no constitutional precedent for it at all. We all know Gordon Brown nearly called an election in 2007 but chickened out. With the state the Labour Party is in, Theresa May wouldn’t be human if she wasn’t tempted, but there is the small matter of the Fixed Term Parliament Act which slightly gets in the way. There would need to be a 66% vote of MPs for a general election – that is 429 MPs. Would all Labour MPs act like turkeys voting for Christmas? Difficult to say. I’m not sure the SNP would like one, and the LibDems couldn’t afford one. Having said that, Tim Farron has called for one and it’s possible the LibDems could see a mini-revival.

Theresa May will be a very different kind of Prime Minister to David Cameron. While she bought into much of his modernising agenda, she is actually much more of a traditional Conservative than most people think. She is conservative rather than a Conservative, by which I mean she is wary of dramatic change rather than holding socially conservative views. She’s a Baldwin rather than a Thatcher, and I don’t mean that as in insult. She will test a case to destruction before embarking on radical change. Her premiership will be dominated by Brexit and she knows it is what she will be judged upon. This is why her Cabinet appointments are so important, especially the four main roles – Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and the person who will head up the Brexit negotiations and new trade talks.

As of now I doubt Theresa May has decided herself who she wants to appoint to these roles, and that’s the reason she shouldn’t take over as Prime Minister until later in the week. Appoint in haste, repent at leisure. Predicting what she will do is a mug’s game, but I will make the following observations. I cannot see how either George Osborne or Philip Hammond can be appointed to any of these roles, with the possible exception of Home Secretary. The Sunday newspapers suggested she might offer that role to Michael Gove, but I find that difficult to believe given their history. If Gove remains in the Cabinet at all, it would surely be in his current role as Justice Secretary, where he is doing good work on prison reform. Speculation is rife that both David Davis and Liam Fox might be offered roles in her government. Fox covets the job of Foreign Secretary, while Davis was tipped by several Sunday papers to head up the Brexit negotiations. It seems to me that these three roles – Chancellor, Foreign Secretary & Brexit negotiator – have to be held by Brexiteers. The only exception I would make to that would be if David Cameron would agree to serve as Foreign Secretary. As I wrote on Friday in my ConHome Diary, there is some historical precedent for this, although I don’t think it is at all likely.

Some new Prime Ministers bloom in office, others wither. Gordon Brown had a spectacular first three months and then it all got on top of him. Theresa May needs to learn the art of delegation. It’s something she has never been good at. Ask any minister who has served under her. She’s always been on top of her brief, but has looked less certain when answering questions which are off it. We saw a little of that earlier this morning when she took questions from journalists after her campaign launch in Birmingham. She really does need to become Theresa of all trades rather than mistress of one.

Theresa May has a good team surrounding her. She’s brought back her three former special advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. They are all deeply loyal to her (read Norman Baker’s book AGAINST THE GRAIN for the proof) and all highly capable. Expect them all to take on senior roles in Number Ten.

Who knows where we will be by the end of the day. For Theresa May it’s the most exciting day of her life. It’s probably also the most frightening. Whenever we step up to a big job we all have moments of self-doubt, and Theresa May will be no different to anyone else. Whatever our political views, everyone should be wishing her all the luck in the world.

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