A good whipping operation can delay but not prevent the inevitable
Napoleon famously demanded that his generals be lucky. It’s a wonderful attribute to have but the emperor really should have been more specific. What’s important is being lucky at the right time. On that score, Theresa May has fallen short and it will cost her her premiership.
That’s not to say she’ll lose it today or tomorrow, or even this year. An effective pre-emptive strike against Grant Shapps ensured that his attempt to force a change was still-born and almost certainly prevented other critics from breaking cover. You do not go for the kill if you aren’t sure you have the resources to carry it through. (Shapps did, of course, continue what might well have become a suicide mission but he’d already been exposed, leaving him with only the options of pretending he hadn’t been orchestrating it – a line that would no doubt have fallen apart faster than a conference set – or holding firm despite his obvious isolation).
For all that though, her luck has deserted her when she needed it and it’s left her so badly weakened that it will be almost impossible for her to recover he authority. She got lucky in the leadership election when all the other candidates took each other, or themselves, out – but opinion polls put her ahead among party members even before Boris withdrew. She got lucky with Corbyn as Labour leader but she inherited a majority, if only a small one: whoever led Labour after 2015 could have only carped from the sidelines unless she gave them an opening.
But since the election, where she pushed her luck too far, she’s been anything but the commanding presence she was before May and now, when she needed a break, her luck has deserted her.
The conference was the best opportunity she’s had since the election to relaunch her premiership, which had become mired down in the bog of Brexit. In the text of her speech, she did just that: restating the priorities she put forward on entering Number Ten and making a strong philosophical and practical case for them (though not necessarily a great campaigning case). Unfortunately, people stopped taking in what she was saying to concentrate only on how she was saying it. The story was of her delivery, the interruption and the set design. Her best chance has now gone and it’s back to the day job.
And the day job brings continual challenges: not necessarily of the direct form that Shapps adopted but the day-to-day stuff that firstly brings endless opportunities to slip up and which secondly can easily get – and until now has got – in the way of the big vision stuff. It still will. May doesn’t have the authority to impose that programme while people are looking to a time beyond her departure and it’s not been sufficiently well-sold for it to develop organically.
The big danger for her is that once a narrative of her being under pressure is created, it will become very difficult to dispel, not least because she’s not extrovert and she does act defensively.
The media also love a narrative that they can shoehorn events into – and there are always events that can be shoehorned.
Sooner or later, this will take its toll. Given the dismissal of the Shapps plot, don’t expect a downfall within days but she’s not safe for the rest of this year yet, never mind beyond. Never forget that the Tory leadership rules can swing into action within hours, that there is no need for MPs to go public and there is no need for challengers to champion an alternative leader until the No Confidence vote is concluded (though this last fact is only partially true: in practice, MPs will always be thinking more than one step ahead). Whether an internal falling out, a fluffed set-piece or something else, opportunities to challenge will arise. The only sure defence against them is to be delivering as leader: no-one is talking about challenges to Corbyn any more.
Can she deliver the turnaround that Corbyn did? I can’t see it. Corbyn had, and took, the opportunity to play to his strength, as well as being granted an extraordinary opportunity by the Tory manifesto. May’s strength – calmly getting on with the job – simply does not have the same capacity to change minds, particularly when, for example, so little progress is being made on Brexit, the economy is slowing and the NHS is about to enter the pressures of winter. Leaders have to be able to lead as well as to manage.
Napoleon’s maxim is both trite and truthful at the same time. No-one is inherently lucky; the best that anyone can do is make the most of their luck. The French emperor, for example, was not unlucky that Russia proved a rather more resilient foe when fighting on its own ground than he’d assumed, nor that he didn’t prepare properly, either in resources or in strategy.
Having fluffed her own March on Moscow (or at least, Bolsover), Theresa May is a much reduced figure. The lack of an obvious replacement shields her to a degree, as does what in normal circumstances would be very good polling (YouGov had the Tories back in at 40 yesterday, only 2 behind Labour). However, the responses to the subsidiary questions are deteriorating and the Tory vote share must be considered soft.
These last couple of days have proven that Conservative MPs are not yet in a mood to panic, which may be a human response to events outside the PM’s control. That will not always be the case.