The 84 MPs who supported Leadsom "should no longer be trusted to tie their own shoe laces"by Philip Collins / July 11, 2016 / Leave a comment
Politics at high altitude is difficult and not everyone can cope once they have sampled the air. One by one, all of the leaders of the Leave campaign have fallen by the wayside with the exception of Gisela Stuart, who should now stand for the leadership of the Labour party. All of them have fallen for a good conventional reason, which is obscured by the drama of events.
Boris Johnson collapsed first. His demise will be written up as a slaughter by his colleague and erstwhile friend Michael Gove but that was only the public expression. The private truth was that Johnson had already been shown up as not good enough. When Britain voted to “Leave” the European Union, Boris disappeared. He appeared not to be able to cope with what he had done. The weekend after the vote to “Leave” was a great political opportunity. If Johnson had appeared in public and spoken decisively with a sense of where he was planning to take the nation, he would have been Prime Minister.
The fact that he was unable to do so is more than a tactical failure of political timing. It is because he had nothing to say. Even as Mayor of London that clear weakness was obscured. Suddenly, at the high altitude, in the thinner air at the summit of politics, he struggled to breathe. Johnson’s essential frivolity was a fresh novelty at all points in politics short of the top. Suddenly, with the nation on the threshold of great uncertainty it needed a professional. By his absence Johnson showed that, in his own words, he was not that man. Gove’s action was a recognition by an insider of a fact that was already apparent. It was therefore an act of political mercy.
There was, though, a victim and that victim was Gove himself. His bullet passed straight through Johnson and then ricocheted back onto himself. If Gove had declared himself a contender from the beginning he might, possibly, have had a chance of winning over his party. As the man who conducted such an act of treachery, he blew all hope. MPs fled from the Leave side to declare for Theresa May who instantly acquired the cachet that always attaches to the likely winner. Even natural supporters of Gove thought his actions preposterous. There is always a balance to be struck between loyalty and ruthlessness and this act breached the rule.
That extraordinary drama left only Andrea Leadsom on stage from the Leave side. A junior minister in the Department of Energy and Climate Change whose first question, on taking up the new job, was reputed to have been “is climate change real?” You’d have thought that the name of the department offered a clue. With the fall of Johnson and Gove, Leadsom was promoted to an elevation of which she could hardly have dreamed. She suddenly became the repository of the hopes of the ardent “Leave” campaigners. Remarkably for a politician of such narrow experience, she became their candidate to be Prime Minister. Eighty four Conservative MPs voted to put her in the run-off to contest the top job against Theresa May.
“The job of a Cabinet minister is narrow and events are episodic. The job of Prime Minister is broad and events are endless.”
That is 84 Conservative MPs whose views should not be sought on anything again. 84 MPs who should no longer be trusted to tie their own shoe laces. Leadsom may or may not turn out to be a decent Cabinet minister. The early evidence suggests that is unlikely but the evidence is meagre. There is certainly nothing like enough on which to erect a theory that she should be Prime Minister. Britain is at an inflection point. It is divided and uncertain and requires leadership. The conservative virtue of stability is exactly what it requires. To elevate a novice from the foothills to the mountain top would have been the most reckless political act of modern times. Those MPs who regarded that as a viable idea should be ashamed of themselves. Fortunately, after a bruising weekend, in which The Times ruined her candidacy with the old journalistic trick of reporting faithfully precisely the words she uttered, Leadsom realised the game was up.
Her statement did not say explicitly that she was quitting the race because she couldn’t breathe up there. But it was obvious that was the real reason and she deserves credit for understanding it. She was so far from being ready that to have carried on would have damaged her more. Now she can take a job in May’s administration and build her political career at a more measured pace.
Meanwhile, the more tested Theresa May will take up residence in Downing Street. May is an inscrutable politician about whom not a great deal is known for someone who has been in public life so long. It will take time for her to impose a new character on her government and for her style as a leader to emerge. But it will be more difficult than most people think, perhaps more difficult than she thinks herself. The job of a Cabinet minister is narrow and events are episodic. The job of Prime Minister is broad and events are endless. The process has shown conclusively that her rivals are not up to the job. We shall now see if Theresa May is.