The leadership of the Conservative Party hoped that their conference in Manchester this year would press pause. Pause on the deflation of Theresa May’s authority as Prime Minister. Pause on Jeremy Corbyn’s love affair with significant numbers of voters. Pause on the civil war that they can feel warming up and closing in. Despite everything – or, perhaps, thanks to everything – they will feel an uneasy optimism this morning.
Yes, Theresa May’s speech to conference was a disaster. But it was such a disaster, filled with so many mishaps and almost ludicrous bad luck, that it suspends the Prime Minister in animation. The prankster, the coughing fits, the shoddy stage – any on their own might have killed her off. Together they protect her in an armour of pity. Who now lacks the emotional intelligence and the sense of timing to allow them to move explicitly against a woman so mistreated by the fates?
Boris Johnson used his star turn at conference to deliver a thinly veiled plea that he be let loose of the chains of his high office. ‘Let the lion roar’ he beseeched, as ever barely managing to separate his private grief from the country’s needs. Speaking to activists and MPs at this conference there was a clear sense that the old magic had passed. Boris no longer holds the party in the palm of his hand. Were there a leadership election tomorrow, the Foreign Secretary would still be an early favourite. But his star has waned and the backbenchers from the 2010 intake onwards appear determined to reduce his chances further by keeping May in office for longer. They are presently the Prime Minister’s greatest allies – if you believe that self-preservation continues to be her goal.
For these younger MPs the whole Cabinet is to blame. They see not a team of rivals but a pratfall of clowns. One day James Cleverly, Tom Tugendhat, Jacob Rees-Mogg and others will have to face one another in a battle royale for the top spot. But like the alliances forged early in the Hunger Games, for now they hunt together. Their demands are loyal silence from the current Cabinet and then a series of graceful exits in order to give them and their generation the chance to shine and to establish their claims to high office. May would be wise to accept these demands unconditionally if she is to carry on.
But she needs to make space for these younger politicians for more reasons than party management. She must do so for Party renewal. Both intellectually and presentationally, the Conservative Party feels tired and tone deaf. There is every chance that it will lose the next election, whenever it comes. Full blooded socialism is a real and present danger. If Mrs. May cannot change the script, even whilst remaining the leading lady, doom beckons.
It is time for the Prime Minister to reshuffle her senior team. She will be frightened of the fall out, of course. But Boris and co are hardly exhibiting determined loyalty as things stand. And after her car crash speech, pity may well buy Mrs May the space she needs to act decisively for her own good and for the good of the party she still leads.