Saturday, June 03, 2017

Theresa May will be returned as a damaged prime minister

After the scares for the Conservatives of the past couple of weeks, the broad consensus is still that they will return to parliament as the biggest party in the Commons after the election - and by some margin.  Or perhaps, in Conservative campaign terminology, the emphasis should be on Theresa May returning to office as prime minister, since the party itself has had very much second billing in this campaign.

The problem with the way May and her people have decided to run the campaign is that they had no way out once it went bad.  And it did go very bad.  If you are going to relegate the actual party to a virtual afterthought, and insist that your candidates announce on their election addresses that they are "Standing with Theresa May", rather than "Standing as Conservatives", then you do need to be very sure that the product you are selling is up to the billing.  In this instance it wasn't.

While the Tories are clawing back some points in the polls, the latest Comres poll is interesting in that it graphically shows the damage the campaign has done to May's own standing.  The Conservative Party remains at 12 points ahead of Labour, but May's personal negative ratings have soared by 10 points.

Having started out with the "strong and stable" mantra, Mrs. May seems to have done everything in her power to disprove it.  Michael Crick's "weak and wobbly" accusation was seized upon by many.  A quick review of the campaign shows up the problem.  Mrs. May didn't vary from the lines she had been given from the start, causing negative comment from thinking observers and a damning belief that she was a robotic campaigner taking people for granted.  She was insulated from ordinary crowds, and when she did face them it went wrong, as in the Abingdon market square.  She avoided the televised debate and failed to provide a good or credible reason for so doing.  She put out a daring manifesto pledge which had been ill tested and then rowed back within a day once it caused upset, refusing to acknowledge that that was what she had done.  On the single issue which she claimed the election was about - Brexit - she has failed to give any information whatsoever.  No-one is any the wiser now than they were at the start of the campaign exactly what this Prime Minister's approach to Brexit, the single most important issue of the election by her own admission, is.

The Tories may still win a significant majority in the Commons, but they do so behind a seriously damaged leader, and it is almost entirely her own fault, and that of her notoriously tight team.  Many voters started the campaign with a broad belief that Theresa May was the best person to be negotiating our exit from Europe.  I doubt few hold that belief now.  The best that can be said is that she is likely to be better than Jeremy Corbyn,  although in Keir Starmer he has a putative negotiator who would wipe the floor with the likes of Liam Fox and Boris Johnson and easily hold his own with David Davis.

She didn't intend it to, but the campaign has exposed Mrs. May's shortcomings under a harsh and unforgiving light.  She will never wield the same authority after this campaign that she did before, whatever the majority.  The days when her Director of "Communications" Fiona Hill could send dismissive messages with impunity to senior ministers should be over.  If nothing else, there needs to be a sea change within Team May and at the top of government.

The two chiefs of staff need to be downgraded as soon as the new government starts.  A proper, civil service trained chief of staff needs to be appointed, and an effective Communications Director - this campaign has suffered appalling communications as well as much else.  As for the senior ministers, Philip Hammond - who has been hung out to dry by No 10 several times - should be kept on with his authority enhanced and his ability to make an independent contribution to the counsels of government kept intact.  Liam Fox, virtually invisible in the campaign and unable in any case to speak without putting his foot in his mouth, should be relieved of his duties and an able minister appointed in his place.  I would also replace Boris Johnson with a more low key and effective foreign secretary too; either move Amber Rudd (leaving space for the promotion of Damian Green, perhaps, to the Home Office) or possibly promote the well regarded Michael Fallon.  Liz Truss, incidentally, should definitely be moved away from Justice and a more rigorously independent minster put in her place - Dominic Raab perhaps, or even the return of Michael Gove who was well regarded there previously.

Sadly, that is a wish list.  Mrs. May has never been the most flexible of people and she may well not see the need to make any changes, for all the evidence of her terrible campaigning.  One thing we might consider though.  After an election such as this, will she really want to fight another in five years time?  More to the point, will the Conservative Party really want her to?





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