David Singleton: Finally Labour has an attack line that could damage Theresa May
The Economist has branded the PM ‘Theresa Maybe’. Now Labour must capitalise on the attack.
It is with good reason that prime ministers have never liked being labelled indecisive. Just over 60 years ago The Telegraph criticised Anthony Eden for not providing “the smack of firm government”. The famous phrase in the paper’s 1956 leader article destabilised Eden and he resigned a few months later on 9 January 1957.
More recently, Gordon Brown was badly wounded by repeated charges of dithering. Newspapers quickly bought into the narrative as David Cameron declared in 2008 that “if dithering was an Olympic sport he would have a gold medal”. The recruitment of a host of private sector spin doctors to the court of Brown could not undo the damage done by the sustained Tory assault.
And now Theresa May is looking increasingly vulnerable to the same charge.
The Economist has become the first serious title to go big on the theme, with a scathing leader headlined: ‘Theresa Maybe, Britain’s indecisive premier.’
It states that May’s caution has "started to look like indecision" and suggests that perhaps she has no clear idea what she is doing after all.
“After six months it is hard to name a single signature policy, and easy to cite U-turns," it states. "Some are welcome: a silly promise to put workers on company boards, for instance, was abandoned; a dreadful plan to make firms list their foreign employees lasted less than a week; and hints at curbing the Bank of England’s independence were quietly forgotten. Selective ‘grammar’ schools will be resurrected—but only on a small scale, and perhaps not at all, given how many Tory MPs oppose the idea. Other reversals smack of dithering."
It concludes that "the cause of this disarray could be that Mayism itself is muddled".
The leader is bad enough for the prime minister's highly-prized reputation as a safe pair of hands in tough times. But even more deadly than the leader is the front cover reheating the old 'Theresa Maybe' epithet.
Labour and Tory spin doctors will be watching with interest to see if this attack line gathers momentum. For now, Number 10 will be relatively relaxed as long as the papers are not tempted to get involved. The challenge for Labour press office is to ensure that the papers do get involved - by finding different excuses for throwing the charge out every week.
If they want a few tips, Labour advisers only need to look back a few years to see how the Tories accused Brown of dithering at every opportunity.
In 2007, Brown opened himself up to accusations of dithering when he considered holding an early election, refused to dampen down speculation and then finally announced there would not be an early election after all. By 2010 Brown had variously been accused of dithering over whether to release the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, whether to meet the Dalai Lama, whether to expand Heathrow, whether to take part in a TV election debate… and whether to reveal his favourite biscuit.
Alternatively, Labour could just hire in the PR thug who ordered the hits on the former Labour leader – and no-one need ever know. Apparently.
Former Tory comms chief-turned-jailbird Andy Coulson declared in January that he was setting up a communications consultancy to provide “clear, discreet and effective strategic advice”. A few months later, he popped up in ES Magazine to declare that Coulson Chappell “offers discreet corporate strategy and communications advice”.
Naturally the firm’s website does not reveal any clients. But it does confirm that Coulson Chappell provides "discreet communications advice".