For most politicians, the rough and tumble of the day-to-day means that tactics come first and strategy has to wait. Our MPs and ministers live in a state of perpetual motion when the House is sitting – running like a cartoon character who has run out of road, refusing to look down lest gravity get the better of them. The relentless intensity of legislative life serves a purpose: it tends to weed out fools and frauds and it rewards both stamina and good, snap judgement. Many a shining political star has waned upon introduction to the grinding reality of Westminster. For example, Boris Johnson has been an MP twice and on both occasions his colleagues have found him wanting.
Recess, then, is not merely a chance for MPs to reconnect with friends, family and constituents. It is an opportunity to stop, to think and – for the more gifted amongst our political class – to strategise. This week, as MPs have returned to the hurly burly, we have seen the fruits of some of those long summers’ days of plotting and pondering.
Theresa May spent three weeks walking with her husband in Europe. She found time to lead a hotel bar sing-a-long of God Save the Queen (traditional version, not the Sex Pistols) and to think about her future. Our Prime Minister is prone to making big decisions on her hiking holidays – it was after a trip to Wales that she decided to call an election – and this was no different, if rather less dramatic. Mrs. May has decided she wants to be Prime Minister.
Now, that might sound rather obvious. After all, she is the Prime Minister and she spent a considerable number of years making little secret of her ambition to be the Prime Minister. So, what’s new? Well, Theresa May faced two choices; one, she could manage her own decline and lead a Government focused, in part, on creating and affirming a successor. Or, she could try to beat the odds – to cling on to power in the hope that something will turn up and in the knowledge that the only people her party likes less than her are her primary rivals. She has chosen the latter path. For that reason, expect her to dangle reshuffles left, right and centre in order to maximise the power of patronage. Witness, too, her appointment of popular ex-Parliamentarian Sir John Randall (a former Deputy Whip) to her inner circle at Downing Street. She is in no mood to surrender.
Is it likely that she will fight the next election as Prime Minister? No. But it is plausible. And Mrs. May has decided to give it a go.
If May’s rivals have been strategising, few of them appear to have come up with much of a plan. In part this is because even her most jealous and ambitious colleagues – Boris, naturally, as well as Amber, Andrea and others – see May’s job as a poisoned chalice for the time being. But it is also because they are weak – as blamed by backbenchers and by members for the current mess as the PM herself. The half-in-jest elevation of Jacob Rees-Mogg to leadership contender is a symptom of this malaise. As with Labour’s embrace of a man who by virtue of disloyalty could never be blamed for the failings of Blair and Brown, so some in the Tory Party seek perfect purity. Rees-Mogg is unlikely to lead but whoever does so next will almost certainly be of his generation or younger. Names to keep an eye on in this regard include former solider Tom Tugenhat and ex-diplomat Rory Stewart.
The only summer winner in the Conservative Party has been David Davis. He displayed scrupulous loyalty to May in the aftermath of the election and has made himself indispensable. He is rumoured to have won his long war with the Permanent Secretary at his own department (a civil servant who is unusually close to May, having worked for her at the Home Office) and he has finally begun adding meat to the bones of the UK negotiating strategy. If he succeeds in steering the controversial (but for the Government, crucial) Great Reform Bill through, Davis will further cement his position as one of May’s few dependable lieutenants.
In Labour, peace reins supreme. Corbyn is safe and has judiciously avoided throwing his new found weight around too aggressively or overplaying his hand. Allowing Keir Starmer to gently, nervously, row Labour away from ‘constructive ambiguity’ and towards a sensible compromise on the Single Market is canny and Labour appear to have avoided too many self-inflicted wounds thus far. If he can hold the line through conference – giving a display of Labour unity and concrete opposition to the Government’s agenda, foreign and domestic, he will be able to honestly claim that he is a Prime Minister in waiting. That’s good for him, of course. But it’s also good for May – nothing inspires Tory loyalty like the threat of full-throated socialism.
Just six months ago, Theresa May had the highest personal poll rating of any recent Prime Minister. Jeremy Corbyn was flat-lining and faced open hostility from his parliamentary party. Life comes at you fast in politics. But in that unpredictability lies the answer to the question, posed by many this summer, of why Theresa keeps soldiering on. If she could crash from universal acclaim to universal derision in the space of a few months, the Prime Minister figures, then she could – just possibly – rise once again. Truly, May plans to invert the first rule of gravity (political or otherwise): what goes down, she hopes, must come up.