by Steven Paterson, former MP for Stirling
The frenzied speculation about how long Prime Minister Theresa May‘s ghostly apparition will haunt 10 Downing Street reached new heights this week, as Tory MPs engaged in increasingly bitter internecine warfare over the succession.
Mrs May herself must have been grateful to be jetting off to China in pursuit of trade deals, leaving the squabbling factions to tear one another apart in her absence instead of right in front of her. She cuts a lonely figure these days, convincing nobody she has any authority left or is in any realistic sense in charge.
Instead, we have governmental paralysis, despite vital Brexit negotiations restarting this week on which the future prosperity and trading status of the country depends. The hard-Brexit brigade, amongst whose esteemed members are such noted bigwigs as Boris Johnston, Michael Gove and the hyperactive Jacob Rees-Mogg, seem to spend more of their time slagging off members of the more pragmatic majority of the parliamentary Tory party, who were against Brexit to begin with but now feel compelled to follow through with it following the EU referendum. The hard-Brexit brigade is winning though, and no mistake.
Indeed, there is little effort to even hide the schism in the governing party at present. Take Boris Johnston briefing the press on his own thoughts on funding for the English NHS, for which he got a slap on the wrist from the Prime Minister at the Cabinet meeting if we are to believe Number 10’s spin. Not that he would have cared too much, and why should he? He has bigger fish to fry in setting out his leadership credentials and has no need to care two hoots about the views of a drowning Prime Minister who isn’t strong enough to sack him.
An attempt was made this week to put the bold Boris in his place by the most senior and influential of the former Remainers , Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, who reminded the world and Boris that Boris’s job is Foreign Secretary, and that maybe he should have enough work to keep him busy in that role to be spouting policy alternatives on health. It’s a fair point.
Of course, Boris is one of those senior ministers who thinks he has a genuine chance of succeeding Mrs May, which is a terrifying prospect for rational human beings everywhere. Unfortunately, he’s right on this. In my view, a Boris premiership is a very real possibility which is too quickly dismissed as unrealistic north of the border, where his buffoonish performance is simply a little too convincing. Make no mistake though: he is a contender, since the next Prime Minister will have been a Leave supporter during the EU referendum, and Boris fits the bill.
Perhaps the nation’s favourite arriviste Peer of the Realm, Lady Mone of Mayfair, is thinking of having a tilt at the top job. Granted, she may not understand that since the 1902, it’s not been the done thing to have Prime Ministers from the House of Lords, but fashions can change, right?
Her Ladyship might need to take a crash course in the basics of constitutional politics, among other things, before she transcends to the premiership, however. Perhaps the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz could be hired at the taxpayers’ expense to school her on how all this stuff works.
For a serious outside bet, though, throw a few quid at self-styled Victorian gentleman and media darling Jacob Rees-Mogg. I didn’t believe he had a realistic chance until recently, but for months, and particularly since the Prime Minister’s humiliating reshuffle debacle a few weeks ago, he has carefully positioned himself as a senior voice amongst the hard Brexit Eurosceptic Tories and is now a point man for television interviews. And given the paucity of obvious candidates, who knows? If he is minded to throw his hat in the ring, he may find himself considerably advantaged by not having been part of the present ailing administration that is now dying before our eyes.
Should Mrs May somehow still be in office by the third week of March, she will attend and represent the UK at the next summit of EU leaders. If she is there at this crucial meeting, it will only be because the warring Tory factions judge it better to let her struggle on a bit longer whilst the runners and riders to replace her jostle for position, and for the opposing tribes to ensure that their candidate, and not the enemy’s, takes her place.
Yet the race could be kicked off at any moment. If reports are true – and there are few secrets from journalists in this Tory war of succession – over 40 Tory MPs have their letters in asking for a Leadership Election, with 48 MPs required to formally ask for one to force the issue, initiate a confidence vote in the Prime Minister, and trigger a ballot on her replacement. At that point, it will be time to call the removal vans for Mrs May, and time to put up or shut up for those who aspire to follow her as Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, amidst the infighting and backstabbing within the governing party, very little governing is being done, which is a reprehensible failure from a government which has dragged us into complete constitutional crisis but has no idea what to do next.
For example, the UK Government’s Scottish Secretary David Mundell and Cabinet Office Minister David Liddington, visited the Scottish Government’s Deputy First Minister John Swinney and Brexit Minister Mike Russell at Holyrood on Thursday, but yet again brought no proposals for fixing the deeply flawed EU (Withdrawal) Bill they have now passed to the House of Lords. This was just more rhetoric and warm words, but no concrete proposals to put to Scottish Government ministers, who have demonstrated saintly patience in light of endless meetings about meetings, but are justifiably exasperated at the sheer inability of UK Government ministers to treat these matters with the seriousness required.
This is absolutely ridiculous given what’s at stake. These issues have been known about by the UK Government since the EU referendum, yet months are passing without any answers whatsoever to fundamental issues of governance and trade that will affect business and jobs, and the very way governance takes place in this country. There is a vacuum of leadership from our London rulers.
Given the gravity of what is at issue for Scotland and the UK right now, it really would be nice if the Tory governing class could spend just a little less time knifing one another to get higher up the greasy pole, and a little more time getting on with the day job.