The forty-year civil war within the Tory party over Europe has done for Theresa May, as it did for David Cameron. It also tripped up John Major and Margaret Thatcher. But now, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, the stakes for the rest of us are much, much higher.
One hundred and twenty-four thousand Conservative party members will have the final say on who will be our next Prime Minister.
He or she will be tasked with determining the nation’s destiny. Not just until the next general election but for a generation.
A wrong turning at this crossroads in our island history could do us untold damage. Or liberate us. At this stage we’ve no way of knowing which.
Just under sixty-seven million people live in the United Kingdom. They can but hope those guys, generally pushing sixty and tolerably comfortably off, will make the right call on their behalf.
Nothing wrong with the age or economic profile of the Tory grassroots, but think about the numbers. And wonder, if you will, what the hell happened to democracy.
Never mind the tail wagging the dog, it’s more a matter of a couple of stray hairs tickling the entire beast.
To recap. Theresa May finally admitted defeat on Friday, and promised to stand down as leader of her party on June 7th, but to soldier on as caretaker Prime Minister until her successor is appointed, probably in late July.
After three failed attempts at getting her painstakingly and painfully negotiated Brexit terms past parliament, she admitted she’d given up hope.
Her Downing Street statement to that effect, charged as it was with genuine emotion, was the finest performance of her three-year premiership.
As it became increasingly obvious her MP’s were determined to get her out a senior minister muttered to a BBC correspondent ‘if it’s to be done, it’s best to be done quickly’.
This was a truncated version of a quote from Shakespeare, in which Macbeth and his wife were discussing not deposing but actually murdering the king. Blood spurt artery? Nasty, very nasty.
Whether the minister had thought of that is an open question, but another quote from the same play springs to mind in relation to Mrs May’s mini-speech.
Describing the eloquence of a man about to be executed for treason, an eye-witness said ‘nothing in his life became him like the leaving it’.
Theresa May all but broke down in tears as she expressed her gratitude for the opportunity ‘to serve the country I love’. If she’d managed to get a bit more of that sort of welly into her negotiations with her own party she might have got a few more people on board.
But she didn’t, because it’s not her style. To her cost. The question is, could anyone else have done any better? Indeed, does her successor at Number Ten stand a hope in hell of delivering anything other than a chaotically destructive Brexit?
Two schools of thought on that, oddly enough.
One is the parliamentary mathematics remain the same. The Tory party does not command a majority in the house. And its survival depends on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, who will not countenance the only terms acceptable to the EU regarding the border with the Irish Republic.
Fact. Immutable fact. Meaning even an Angel Gabriel with a blue rosette wouldn’t stand a hope in hell.
Then there’s the counter-argument.
The house of commons is a weird place. Trades as sensible, level-headed and bound by the laws of logic, but is in fact driven by emotion and theatricality.
Think of Winston Churchill’s soaring rhetoric after the Dunkirk retreat in World War Two. It’s said that as he sat down after his ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ speech he muttered to colleagues, ‘and we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that’s bloody well all we’ve got!’.
No matter, by the sheer force of his personality he dragged the nation and Parliament into line.
And it’s just possible that this summer’s freshly minted Prime Minister might work some similar magic. Best not hold your breath, though.
There’s no denying the frontrunner to succeed Theresa May, Boris Johnson, has a way with words. He’s certainly the darling of the blue rinse brigade.
But is he the right man to lead the nation? The former journalist turned aspirant statesman has, in the view of many, yet to make the transition between irresponsible hack and accountable politician.
Former Tory Party Chairman Chris Patten also has a way with words. And a scathing take on the former London Mayor and Foreign Secretary,
‘He’s lied his way through life, he’s lied his way through politics, he’s a huckster with a degree of charm to which I am immune. As well as being mendacious he’s incompetent.’
Enough fellow Conservatives and potential contenders for the top job so agree that they’re prepared to devote almost as much effort to stopping Boris as they are to getting themselves in.
Then there’s the small matter of what any of the wannabes might have by way of Brexit policy. And what they might say to endear themselves to that sliver of a constituency that’ll make the choice.
A Times poll of Tory rank-and-file last week found two-thirds of Conservative party activists want a no deal Brexit.
And it’s pretty much a given that the European parliamentary elections will imply a huge upsurge of hardline Brexit support.
Enough certainly to put a big fat squishy smile on the face of ex-UKIP now Brexit party leader Nigel Farage.
Enough also to deliver a message to Euro-moderate and remainers, and to folk like the steelworkers of Scunthorpe whose job prospects are diminished by Brexit, as well as to the vast bulk of business folk who view a disorderly departure with trepidation.
To quote the American sci-fi horror movie The Fly: “Be afraid. Be very afraid”.
Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.
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