A potential reshuffle could buy the Prime Minister time. But eventually, she'll be expected to resign—and the party will turn on her if she doesn'tby Rachel Cunliffe / September 4, 2017 / Leave a comment
Theresa May made a colossal error of judgement by calling a snap election.
This is not a particularly controversial viewpoint. Even with the comments of former Conservative leader William Hague last week insisting that the problem was the result, not May’s decision, there are few that would argue that the prime minister has not been irreparably damaged by her recklessness. But if you were still undecided, the contents of a newly leaked memo, penned by Tory strategist Sir Lynton Crosby in April, should allay any doubts.
In his “Election Strategic Note – April 2017”, Crosby warns May not to be swayed by her 20-point lead in the polls, questioning whether there is any justification for taking such an unnecessary risk. In retrospect, Crosby appears a true Cassandra, whose unheeded predictions about unrealistically high expectations and a fickle electorate proved alarmingly accurate.
Still, what’s done is done, and May has moved on. After a summer holiday in the Alps, she is attempting to shore up her shaky position with rumours of cabinet reshuffle after the Conservative party conference in October.
This has two potential short term benefits. For a start, it might provide the opportunity many Tories have hoped for to inject the front bench with some new blood and distance the party from the disastrous election manifesto.
More importantly, however, it discourages dissent, including among the Remainers in the party—such as Anna Soubry, Sajid Javid or even Philip Hammond—who might be tempted to make trouble now Labour has changed its policy on the Single Market and Customs Union.
Top of the list for promotion is the new darling of the Brexit right, Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose passionately Eurosceptic credentials and nostalgic aristocratic eccentricity have rocketed him to the status of leader-in-waiting.
Despite having never held a cabinet position, Rees-Mogg is now the second favourite to replace May as leader. Various Conservative commentators have leapt on the suggestions of a reshuffle to predict May will clear a path for untapped talent such as Mogg to showcase their abilities, in preparation for a leadership change later on. This is, after all, what Michael Howard did by promoting David Cameron and George Osborne after the Tories lost the 2005 election.
By hinting that she might be about to facilitate the rise of Rees-Mogg, May temporarily protects herself from a more immediate leadership challenge, and alleviates the anger of the backbenchers and party elders who have not forgiven her for losing her majority.
It’s a rational move, but only up to a point. By conspicuous moving to secure her position for now, May risks feeding the speculation that she does not intend to lead the party—or the country—long term.
The argument that the future of May’s leadership becomes more stable with every day she remains prime minister misses one fundamental point: the party does not want her. It did not want her in the immediate aftermath of the failed election—with rampant speculation that she might be forced to resign within days—and the general consensus is still that she survived only because there was no obvious replacement.
That discontent hasn’t just evaporated. Just look at the backlash she faced from her own party last week when she announced she intended to fight the next election—with former Tory heavyweights like Grant Shapps, Michael Heseltine and Nicky Morgan rushing to cast doubt on her confidence.
It is against this backdrop that we should view the leaked Crosby memo. It shows how May was explicitly cautioned against the risk of a snap election just days before she called one, ignoring warnings from the man whose analysis had won Cameron an unexpected majority two years previously. In a move that encapsulates the bunker mentality she fostered at the Home Office and that was her downfall on the campaign trail, May rejected expert advice and did exactly what she (or her overly-influential advisers) wanted.
What’s the point of reliving all this now, when the mistakes have already been made? Because the Crosby memo is a reminder of all the reasons Conservatives are justifiably angry at May and unconvinced about her ability to govern.
May might be using the hint of a reshuffle to consolidate her power now, and she has at least bought herself time—time to headline the Conservative conference next month, and perhaps make a last-ditch effort to reinstate her damaged reputation as a “safe pair of hands.” But in doing so, she has also raised hopes that she will resign without a fuss to make way for new contenders when they have been properly groomed. And if she doesn’t, the party will turn on her.