Anyone passing close to the Royal Chelsea Hospital cemetery, and who hears a mighty rumbling, need not fear an earth tremor – because that sound will surely be Margaret Thatcher turning in her grave.
Theresa May announces that she has postponed Parliament’s vote on her European Union divorce deal.Credit:AP
Mrs Thatcher, by the end of her career, wanted to get Britain out of the European Union. But she would never have thought it would be easy. The real difficulties involved in Brexit, she would have fully understood – having long experience of both – would come from the dangerous interaction of, on the one hand, ingrained European spite and, on the other, ingrained Conservative Party cowardice.
Perhaps Theresa May has hidden qualities of which the world knows nothing. Perhaps she is kind to cats, or mixes a mean cocktail. But Mrs May is certainly the least gifted politician ever to lead the Conservative Party and the least competent prime minister ever to represent Britain in the international arena. She reached her position, because people (wrongly) thought there was nobody else available. But she continues to hold it because the parliamentary party (or, at least, a majority of it) is in one of its serial states of panic and has lost its capacity for reason.
Panic, unlike fear – which may be a rational response to danger – is always destructive, though in different ways. Sometimes it induces violent spasms of misjudged action. When the Tories kicked out Mrs Thatcher in 1990, and replaced her with John Major, it was in such a spasm. On other occasions, as now, panic induces paralysis.
Reason would long ago have suggested getting rid of Mrs May. Since David Davis in his resignation statement as Brexit secretary revealed the Prime Minister's treachery to her colleagues and mendacity to the public, that Mrs May was not trying to deliver Brexit on the terms outlined in the Conservative Party manifesto. The actual terms of the Withdrawal Agreement are so bad, excluding indefinitely, as they do, all the hoped-for benefits of life outside the EU, while having to accept rules made by it, and paying bills sent in by it, that no one but – it is harsh to use the term, but it is unavoidable – a political fool could have expected to get away with it. Yet Mrs May, at the time of writing, hangs on, and though the Conservatives in the Commons laugh at her, they still stick with her.
The Conservative Party has the reputation of being ruthless in dispatching its leaders. That reputation is only partly deserved. The Conservative Party's collective self-interest, its abiding thirst for power, has always been counter-balanced by the desire not to rock the boat, even when the vessel is holed. Individual Conservative MPs may become edgy as elections approach, especially if they are in marginal seats. But the bulk enjoy their salaries and nourish hope for promotion, and they are much more afraid of the Whips than of their constituents or the party members. This makes for apathy.
It also helps explain why the party, on occasions, has stumbled into catastrophic defeats. In 1906 the threat of expensive food (proposed import tariffs) combined with the rise of the Labour Party prompted the Tory electoral collapse. In 1945, despite Churchill, the party was blamed for lack of preparedness for war and regarded as incapable of creating a welfare state. In 1997, where the parallels with today are closest, the Conservatives had lost their reputation for economic competence as a result of the "Black Wednesday" fiasco in 1992, and never regained it.
The Conservative Party is again plunging headlong towards electoral defeat and seems incapable of pulling itself together. There really is "an alternative". The 48 letters required for a vote of confidence in Mrs May is not such a high figure. But she has survived, with consequences still unfolding.
At the end of this kind of gloomy analysis, it is usual to conclude, "but it is still not too late". It is certainly true that Boris Johnson, or one of the other Brexiteers, would make a better fist of negotiations, or preparations for a "no-deal" departure, than Mrs May. That would help politically.
Yet it is very difficult to shift public impressions. The truth is that the party has allowed Mrs May to demean Britain. Every day she stays in office, announcing and then pulling parliamentary votes, oscillating between grubby threats and pleas for understanding, selfishly sending her colleagues out to the media to defend what she has already privately decided to concede, traipsing around Europe like some pitiful but unpitied beggar rather than the leader of a great and powerful nation – every such day is another day of national humiliation for which the Conservatives can expect to be punished.
Who, now, is going to stop it?
Robin Harris is the author of The Conservatives: A History. Telegraph, London
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