George Pascoe-Watson: Theresa May has found a new lease of life
The PM now sees the Conservative whips as her secret weapon.
-- THE INSIDER -
There’s a popular theme in political circles – that Theresa May will step down as Conservative Party leader sometime after Britain leaves the EU in April next year.
The theory goes that Mrs May will put in place an orderly succession process, having delivered Brexit Britain. It will be a smooth leadership contest with a winner emerging from more than a dozen potential candidates. And her successor will lead the Conservatives into the 2022 General Election.
At least that’s the theory. But Mrs May is no mood to budge. Her sights appear very much set on carrying on. All the way to that 2022 General Election.
Those around the PM say it’s time to reappraise her. She’s found a new sense of confidence in recent weeks and months. That’s a direct result of taking definitive action in Syria and on Russia where there was no dithering. There’s nothing quite like ordering Britain’s world class Armed Forces into action to give a Premier a sense of his or her personal authority.
The local elections have also given her a significant lift. They could have been disastrous. But a hugely effective campaign by new Tory chairman Brandon Lewis and his CCHQ team turned a surefire hammering into a “bit of a result”. It was helped by Labour’s counter-productive, over-confident expectation management.
Mrs May is said to have found a new lease of life in private meetings, I’m told. She’s nimble and quick-witted - even humorous - in previously-avoided question and answer sessions with MPs, party stalwarts and other groups.
Mrs May doesn’t just want to be known for delivering Brexit. She wants to be known for delivering a Britain that works better for everyone, as she famously once said. Cabinet ministers are under fresh orders to inject politics into their policy. What are the ways they can do their ministerial jobs whilst making sure they are offering voters reasons to vote Conservative? Genuinely radical policy ideas on things like housing and health are under consideration.
And Mrs May’s secret weapon? The Conservative whips. Huge credit must go to Julian Smith’s operation. A combination of carrot and stick and relentless focus on the detail are his methods.
Younger members are ambitious. They want a clean record so they can step onto the ministerial ladder. Older members are reminded Brexit is coming but only if the PM remains in post. The prize is worth the wait. The ends justify the means. The whips are often the butt of briefing. But Mr Smith has quietly gone about his job and delivered time and again. And he’s up against no slouch. Labour’s Nick Brown is the “whip’s whip” with years of experience, a brilliant brain and the savvy that comes from a lover of procedure.
Since the 2017 election the Tory whips have won more than 150 votes, and lost just one. Mr Smith’s team has torpedoed two humble addresses - on Windrush and Brexit papers - which they might have expected to lose. These are the arcane devices using 19th century Parliamentary laws which allow the Opposition to appeal to the Queen to force government to release embarrassing documents.
Importantly, the Conservative whipping operation twice defeated attempts to shackle a free press by setting up a second round of Leveson hearings. Credit is being given to Chris Pincher, deputy chief whip, for his forensic attention to detail. The job of the deputy chief whip is a thankless one – huge responsibility and little of the power that would make the job easier. It is Mr Pincher who knows the arithmetic, the Order Paper inside out – and can even predict where MPs are likely to sit, when they will choose to speak, and precisely how long he needs them to orate. Others singled out for praise at no10 include newcomers Kelly Tolhurst and Amanda Milling for their single-mindedness. Nigel Adams is a Treasury whip of the old school, and laid-back Mark Spencer is seen as a carbon copy of Sir Patrick McLoughlin. All are seen as performing well.
Now the real test for party unity is looming as the EU withdrawal Bill amendments loom into focus for Commons Considerations of Lords Amendments. The second week of June is pencilled-in for a showdown that could bring everything crumbling down. There are 15 amendments to consider. Horse-trading is under way to persuade or cajole Remainers to back down on some. But there will be conflict.
Lord Hailsham’s “meaningful vote” amendment is critical. Others on environmental principles, the role of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and general principles of EU law are on the table. And that’s before we even get to Northern Ireland’s border and the customs union amendments. But get through this acute period of difficulty and Mrs May can rightfully say she’s dug herself into a rhythm with a team that’s keeping the show on the road and a Party hanging together.
Perhaps this is all that’s possible for anyone in her arithmetical situation. Her ability to build a domestic programme of deliverable policies is in doubt. But this is where Mrs May believes she is today.
Of course, there remain significant opponents to her continued Premiership. Some have been very open, others less so. But whether they like it or not, Mrs May is slowly, painstakingly, building her case for more, not fewer, years in Number 10.
George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications and former political editor at The Sun.