THE TORY POWER VACUUM ENSURES LEADERSHIP MANOEUVRES WILL TO CONTINUE OVER THE SUMMER
By Matthew Young – APPC Young Consultants’ Committee
The summer months when Parliament is not sitting can often pass with without incident, doing little to provide genuine relief from the media’s so called ‘silly season’, save for a few new policy announcements – often delivered in pre-legislative, consultative form – launched at a time when parliamentary scrutiny is nil.
Other years the summer provides fertile ground for certain politicians, some with very obvious career ambitions, to make their play for higher office, safe in the knowledge that they have little chance of being reprimanded or brought to order for their actions.
Scenario two isn’t an annual occurrence of course, and usually happens when politicians spot a chink in the armour of their party’s leadership during a period of political instability - like say after a poor general election result that it has expected to walk (see also: Labour Party & 2016).
Indeed, this is exactly where the Conservative Party finds itself now. Devoid of a rock solid mandate, the party is in relative turmoil. As a result, a power vacuum at the top, characterised by a prime minister without real authority, has appeared (true, the ship has been steadied in recent weeks, overseen by the astute new Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell, but considerable uncertainty remains). Given this context, the signs are already there that this summer recess may well be one of intrigue, briefings and manoeuvrings.
At the heart of this politicking is Philip Hammond. Before the election No.10 had attempted to claw back some of the power that the Treasury had accumulated under the Osborne years. It was an open secret that May planned to sack her Chancellor, expecting increased majority, and it was telling that Hammond played little to no role in the campaign. However, after the poor result, May’s ability to dismiss her Chancellor was diminished – creating a newly emboldened Chancellor who is clearly enjoying a relatively free hand.
Hammond, as a consequence, has taken to attempting to dictate policy – most notably on Brexit – through the press. Last Friday, he warned that it would take “some time” before the UK gained full control of immigration after Brexit, prompting suggestions that free movement may continue after the UK leaves the EU in 2019. This is not the Government’s official position and this prompted a quick rebuttal from the Prime Minister’s office who clarified that, as she did when she delivered her speech on the UK’s Brexit terms in January, that free movement would end when the UK leaves the EU.
Make no mistake, this public exchange via the media is the tip of the iceberg of what is a fairly hostile Cabinet. Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox – the Government’s so called Three Brexiteers – are the other central antagonists. Johnson and Davis in particular are known to have real leadership ambitions and have been particularly vocal at Cabinet meetings on the country’s approach to leaving the EU.
When Parliament returns for a short two week period in September Theresa May will still be prime minister. The Tories cannot risk further instability now because it will only serve to increase the prospect of another early general election – one that Jeremy Corbyn would have more than a fighting chance of winning. However, what this manoeuvring does is place the runners and riders in stark contrast to the current leadership and offers both the Tory grassroots and MPs – both of which any contender would need to convince – that they offer a clean break from May’s administration and will set the party on course for victory in 2022 or, more likely, before.