A tawdry May-DUP deal is not something Con MPs should sign up to
According to the plan, this should have been the week when Theresa May stamped her authority on her government, her Party and the country. A reshuffle to mould her ministers in her image; a Queen’s Speech to tackle the issues she cares about, in the way that she wants to tackle them; and five years in which to do that, to deliver Brexit and to tee up another term. How the gods laughed.
Instead, May demonstrated – and continues to demonstrate – that while she’s perfectly capable of handling the business of government, she’s hopelessly inept at the politics and PR of government. Unfortunately, the various aspects can’t be separated, nor can any of them be ignored. Not if a PM wants to last in office anyway.
The evidence of the tin ear of May and her inner team to dealing with the politics and PR of running a government and party is already huge. Ministers need to be treated with respect, not only because that is their due out of position but because they hold independent power as substantial figures in Westminster. Instead, they were belittled by a pair of over-mighty SpAds. Journalists need to be humoured with stories, anecdote and copy. Instead, they were locked away from the action during the election and not allowed to even hold the microphone when asking questions. How unsurprising that they didn’t see or report things favourably. The excess of control and the desire to hide from any perceived risk is the antithesis of leadership and betrays a deep lack of self-confidence. And if May can’t be confident in her abilities, why should anyone else?
Not that the failings ended with the election. The human touch was again lacking in handling defeated MPs and – most obviously to the public – in not meeting those who have lost everything in the appalling Grenfell fire, exacerbating the problem by citing ‘security’. The Queen went.
It should be obvious now to Tory MPs that this is part of a pattern; that the behaviour is not just a bad run but is characteristic of May’s way of working and is not going to change. As yet, we know little of the DUP negotiations but again, where is the involvement of other ministers or of the parliamentary party? There is no collegiality; there is no recognition that the smallest rebellion puts her majority at risk. If left to run by themselves, events will ensure that May cannot serve for long. It would be far better to pre-empt that inevitability by not undermining the Northern Ireland process by so overtly aligning with one side, by not undermining the case for fiscal responsibility by agreeing to whatever the DUP come up with (and, consequently, by having to find several dozen times as much to satisfy Barnett consequences for the rest of the country), and by keeping control of events.
Which is to say that May must go.
However, what then? Whoever is leader of the Tories still faces the same parliamentary arithmetic. If the DUP are spurned, the government has no reliable majority. The answer is simple: it too should go. Jeremy Corbyn has already indicated that he is ready to form a government; he should be allowed to do so.
In some ways, Corbyn lost the election: he won fewer votes than the Tories and he won fewer seats than the Tories. In another way though, he won. The argument for fiscal responsibility was lost. This was admittedly partly by default through the unwillingness of May to allow Hammond any airtime or to endorse Osborne’s policies but all the same, the country again believes in magic money trees. And it will continue to do so until it is proven that such trees are not magic but poisonous.
Corbyn should therefore be given time to enact his policies and the country given the chance to judge. The Tories remain in a position where they can block an early election, which can easily be justified through to next May at least on the grounds that the public neither wants nor needs a new election and that Labour should get on with the job they asked for, and can block any legislation that would be too difficult to reverse.
Is this a high-risk strategy? In some senses, yes – giving the ground to your opponent always is. On the other hand, if the choice is between an unstable Labour minority government now and a potential Labour majority government elected after a zombie Tory minority government stumbles and falls in 18 months to two years, it’s a question of the lesser of two evils.
And the lesser evil is Corbyn, now.