No, you can’t get to work
CCHQ. Downing Street. Buckingham Palace. Downing Street. The retraced steps of Prime Minister Theresa May this morning as she prepared to return to government after the General Election she called, and didn’t need to call. Winning just 318 seats in the House of Commons and losing their majority, Theresa May has demonstrated how not to take a political gamble. Now, instead of the “strong and stable” majority Conservative Government that the Tory campaign has repeatedly promised and been solely based on, we are faced with Theresa May being reliant on the Northern Irish Democratic Unionists and their 10 MPs.
Theresa May made it clear in her Downing Street statement following her audience with the Queen that the Conservative Government would “get to work”, with Brexit talks scheduled to begin in under two weeks. The issue with May’s statement is that it completely disregarded the result. Although the Tories gained 19 seats overall, with 12 gains from the Scottish Nationalists, a resurgent Labour Party in England and in Wales meant seats the Tories picked up in 2015 that contributed to their majority — Plymouth, Vale of Clwyd and Gower — fell to Labour with bigger majorities than the Conservative Party could hope to match. The conservatives lost 29 seats in England and Wales to Labour and the Liberal Democrats and failed to capitalise on hopes to win Labour because of the perceived weakness of Jeremy Corbyn (more here.)
Disregarding the result in such a manner is both ignorant and arrogant, and probably explains the decision for Theresa May to do another broadcast media interview once inside Downing Street apologising to all the Conservative candidates and former MPs that lost their seats. 10 Ministers lost their seats, though the intake in Scotland is likely to ensure that new talent remains in the Tory Party at a ministerial level. But to state that a party that six weeks ago expected a 100-seat majority and is now in minority can provie stability and calm is laughable, especially when it leaves May reliant upon the votes of the DUP, and places the British Government firmly in the court of one of the two communities of Northern Ireland, something that hasn’t been seen since the 1990s.
May’s decision to keep Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd, David Davis and Michael Fallon in their posts also demonstrates a desire to bunker and carry on as normal, despite the election result. Rudd only won her Hastings and Rye seat by 300 votes, probably reducing the chance that she will seek the Tory Leadership or challenge May, and was very nearly gone in what could have been the biggest “Portillo moment” of the night. But bunkering up like this is not how May should continue: instead of keeping the team the same and acting as though the election never happened, she should be bringing in the voices that were moved out of the cabinet last year back in. Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan and Heidi Allen will all have unprecedented influence in this parliament thanks to May’s miss-steps, potentially influencing the UK’s Brexit deal and the negotiating strategy any government May, or anyone else, utilises over the coming years.
The Prime Minister’s reliance on Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, her joint Chief of Staff in Downing Street, has left her weakened and exposed to criticism. The secrecy that Downing Street operated under, with Hill and Timothy acting as May’s ‘filter’ will now have to end if she is to continue as Prime Minister throughout the Brexit process. If May is to gain the trust of her cabinet that she is a credible PM, she must work with them directly, and not micro-manage them or push them through her advisers. May must now leave the Home Office culture behind and put in place an open government operation or risk alienating her cabinet and bringing leadership challenges on herself. That begins with removing or demoting her two advisers and establishing a single, strong Chief of Staff, as well as a more open network in which she begins to trust other officials and her cabinet colleagues.
Theresa May might well be the Prime Minister and Leader of the UK Conservative Party (for now…), but she is going to have to yield influence to the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson. While the Tories lost seats in England and Wales, Davidson’s party picked up 12 seats at the expense of the Scottish Nationalists, and she did so — according to reports in The Telegraph — following her own Scottish campaign and ignoring calls from CCHQ and Downing Street to “stick to the May script”. She has shown judgement and it’s paid off for the Scottish Tories. In blowing out of the way former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and SNP Depute Leader Angus Robertson, Davidson’s influence and future position within the Conservative Party should not be underestimated.
How much influence she will have is yet to be determined. She’s already used her newly established clout to come out to caution the Conservative — DUP deal, and used a press conference to make it clear to Theresa May that the Scottish Conservative Brexit position is not the same as Downing Street’s, promising to focus on the economy above immigration and retain Freedom of Movement if it is necessary to maintain tarrif-free pan-EU trade. Whether these interventions will make much of a difference in the short term is yet to be seen, but as dissatisfaction with May’s premiership gears up, Ruth Davidson could find herself with significant clout in a band of Conservatives that May has seemingly cast aside.
And let us also look at this deal May has made with the DUP. Moderates should be uneasy about entering into any deal with an anti-abortion, homophobic party. Combine this with the current situation in Northern Ireland, which still lacks a devolved administration after elections in March, and you end up in a situation whereby the British Government is engaging in and moderating negotiations to end a political crisis that it has a political interest in: pleasing the DUP over the Nationalists so as to pass their domestic agenda. Sinn Féin have already claimed that the situation contravenes the Good Friday Agreement, and although that is a matter for legal opinion, it is most certainly not in the spirit on most political decisions that have been made since the peace process where the UK Government has remained neutral over Northern Ireland’s future.
There are many issues that now face Theresa May’s new administration. But what is certain is that her desire to ‘get to work’ is going to have to overcome challenges to her leadership, power base movements, and she is going to have to seriously change how she operates as Prime Minister if she is to offer even the appearance of credibility.