As from the Manchester conference hall I watched Theresa May’s big moment falling apart, as I buried my head in my hands while her agonies multiplied, I suppose I thought this could spell the end for her premiership. But even as I thought that, then reminded myself that the same failure of the larynx has afflicted me in front of a big audience and could strike anyone and is in itself meaningless, I knew such an outcome would be unjust. There may be reasons why the Tories should find a new leader, but the triple-whammy of a frog in the throat, some joker’s idiotic stunt, and the failure of two magnetic letters to stick to a board, can hardly count among them.
And of course within minutes of her sitting down my smartphone started trilling and my inbox pinging with invitations to ‘comment’ on the unhappy hour. Could she survive? Should she go? Should (for heaven’s sake) the party chairman resign?
Every journalist and commentator in the hall will have had the same requests. In the days that followed, any of us could have made a tidy sum from scores of small radio and television engagements where we could have opined that of course these little accidents are always happening but ‘sadly’ (we’d say, with a grave expression) this trio of whoopsies would be ‘seized upon’ by critics and commentators as a ‘metaphor’ for Mrs May’s woes, and could well prove the ‘last straw’ that might break her hold on Downing Street … etc, etc. Lazy, cowardly journalism: making what other people might say do your wounding for you, while sneakily exculpating yourself by insisting that of course this isn’t what you say yourself — oh no — perish the thought; but there are some nasty people out there.
I’m perfectly capable of sinking to this kind of thing, and in journalism you do sometimes have to hold your nose. But something came over me last week and I simply couldn’t do it. This is the first word I’ve written on the subject. And a week meditating rather than commentating on May’s position has seen my attitudes shift.
She should stay. After election night this year I thought she should go, and maybe she should have. But the behaviour of some of her senior and junior colleagues since, and the reflexive responses of scores of them to her conference woes, teaches us something alarming about the parliamentary Conservative party’s current mentality and mood. It’s in a ghastly state. No state at all to choose a proper leader. Everyone seems to know whom they hate, distrust or despise, and each seems to have a strong if differing sense of where they don’t want to go. But as to whom they love, or where they do want to go, or even what sort of party they want to be, I’m picking up not the ghost of anything you could call consensus.
She, meanwhile, seems ambiguous. Maybe her mind is blank. But at least she’s neither destructive, duplicitous nor mad. She’ll have to do. The party needs intensive therapy and perhaps the unfolding of events in the year ahead can provide a reality check, while she holds the fort.
Some of the comments we heard about or read from her fellow MPs shook even my limited confidence in parts of the party. At least Grant Shapps had the decency to go on the record. Others behaved like children, throwing a stone then hiding their hand. But that even shrewd, dutiful, decent, quietly sane Sir Patrick McLoughlin should have to face calls to resign because a magnet had failed to hold an f in place, while a wrong ’un had managed to get a conference pass (scores do, every year, always have and always will) shocked me — though not, I suspect, Sir Patrick, who has been a chief whip.
I’m not easily shocked, though. I do realise that the Commons is a sometimes spiteful place. I well know there exist politicians who hold that there’s no better time to kick someone than when they’re down. And I do realise that the majority remain quietly loyal. I’m not particularly complaining that a fair handful of Tory MPs have a vicious streak while a majority have a yellow streak. I know all that. No, what settled upon me last week was something more amorphous. It was the futility of trying to choose a leader when there isn’t anyone you honestly admire, and there isn’t anywhere you’re honestly sure you want to go. ‘Who should be leader if not May?’ one wise-acre was asked by a colleague. ‘Oh anyone,’ he replied. There lies the void at the party’s heart.
‘Oh anyone’ won’t do. I’m not asking for hero worship, just some gentle indication that colleagues know colleagues whom they admire and trust; that the Conservative party is ready to look up to somebody; that something like a collective sense of direction is stirring in Tory breasts. It’s at least imaginable that as Britain’s Brexit negotiations proceed, some shared appreciation of the limits of the possible may begin to inhabit the parliamentary party and its Brexit claque in the media. The Tories need time, and given time they may profit by the pause. In my wilder moments I’ve even wondered whether Theresa May has consciously resolved to be a blank slate until those she leads can come, of their own accord, to an understanding of what needs to be chalked on to it.
But I can put it no better than a backbench friend’s text to me last week:
‘For real people I’ve spoken to, the response to the speech was at worst neutral, and often positive. For want of a Lemsip, a kingdom should not be lost. It’s utter nonsense. The parliamentary party need to get their shit together and, if they must have a collective breakdown, do it in a corner silently, quietly, and away from where the Guardian can write breathless articles perpetuating it.’