The cowardice and foolishness of Theresa May and Philip Hammond

Their interventions in the leadership race were appallingly timed, badly worded and will have no effect

July 22, 2019
The PM's Chatham House speech—too little, too late. Photo: Henry Nicholls/PA Wire/PA Images
The PM's Chatham House speech—too little, too late. Photo: Henry Nicholls/PA Wire/PA Images

As Theresa May strode into committee room 14 in the House of Commons to cast her vote for the country’s next prime minister last month, a journalist asked her for whom she would be voting. “None of your business,” she said, as she passed. A month later, once Boris Johnson had become the runaway favourite, she finally hinted at who she wasn’t voting for, in a speech at Chatham House where she warned about the rise of populism.

She took aim at politicians with an “inability to combine principles with pragmatism,” which has led, she said, to “a form of absolutism.” It was, her advisors told journalists, a swipe at Johnson, among others.

Philip Hammond was similarly reticent at the start of the voting process, refusing to give his backing to any candidate. But yesterday he revealed that he would resign rather than serve under Johnson, due to the frontrunner’s willingness to support a no-deal Brexit that Hammond had previously called “terrifying.”

What was the point of these interventions? If it was to stop Johnson becoming prime minister, they were more than a month too late. Imagine if May and Hammond had both been honest at the start of the leadership election, pledging not to vote for Johnson and explaining why they thought his premiership would be a danger.

A prime minister, possibly standing next to her chancellor, warning of the dangers of voting for one of the candidates, could have been explosive. It might not have persuaded enough MPs to support another candidate, but it would have at very least set the parameters for the election. Among the grassroots, where May still has respect if not huge support, her warning could have made a real impact.

There is an argument that a leader should not indicate a preference for her successor. David Cameron was similarly mute in 2016, as was Ed Miliband in 2015 and Gordon Brown in 2010. Indeed, you have to go back to 1990, when Margaret Thatcher withdrew from the leadership election and threw her support behind John Major, to find an example of a sitting leader publicly backing a successor.

But if that was May’s reasoning, she rather blew it by making a speech about the dangers of populism so clearly aimed at Johnson. As for Hammond, there is no tradition about what a chancellor can or cannot say.

Instead, May and Hammond have chosen the worst of all worlds. Everyone now knows that they think Johnson is a danger, but they managed to hide their real views until such a moment as the revelation would make absolutely no difference.

What’s worse, even when May finally did break cover, she couldn’t even bring herself to say Johnson’s name. Instead, it was reported as a “coded” attack on Johnson, one that could be safely ignored.

May’s initial insistence that her choice was none of our business was wrong. Her choice was absolutely our business. It was cowardice not to be honest with the public when it could have made a difference. And it was foolish to finally do it only once it made no difference at all.