At about 4pm on Friday I received a text message from a friend in the higher reaches of the Conservative Party. What did I think of Gavin Barwell? And now that he had lost his seat, would I be willing to talk to him about the future, given that he would be a “real catch” and a “big asset”? Sounded great to me, but before I had a chance to think about it properly Theresa May had obviously received the same memo, and snapped him up. My chance was gone.
Appointing Mr Barwell is one of the few things that has gone well for the Prime Minister in the past few days. He is fairly universally liked (although not by Leave.EU and Arron Banks, it would seem), and is a bright and well-connected politician on the up. He ought to provide exactly the kind of bridge to the rest of the Parliamentary Party that Mrs May lacked under her abrasive and isolationist former Chiefs of Staff. He would seem to be just what this most shy and insular PM needs.
Everything else, though, has been pretty disastrous. First, the departure of those two Chiefs of Staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. That they would have to go was inevitable once the post-election recriminations began: the degree to which they had been briefing against Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson meant that once it was clear that Mrs May couldn’t touch those two senior Ministers the advisers would have to go. That she has lost her two crutches and gatekeepers is hard for Mrs May, but it is the degree to which the PM is now governing at the whim of a number of Cabinet members which is astonishing, particularly when you think of the ‘I’m on Theresa May’s team’ authoritarianism and hubris on display just a few weeks ago.
The question, then, is can Mrs May carry on? Of course the answer is no. She has no authority in her Party and above all no credibility in Europe. How on Earth can she negotiate when her EU opposite numbers are laughing at her and think she’ll be gone in weeks? That said, my initial judgement that she would be gone by today has turned out to be wrong, because I had misjudged two things: Tory nerves about the prospect of another election, and the serious worries other senior Ministers have about Boris becoming leader.
Over the weekend lots of newspapers reported that Boris was on manoeuvres. But it now seems likely that his jockeying won’t get him very far – for now – and he has already started to back down, as his ‘leaked’ WhatsApp chit-chat revealed. Other possible contenders such as Hammond, Amber Rudd, David Davis and co don’t want a quick transfer of power precisely because that would mean Boris: he is the only one, or so the myth goes, that can reach the voters Theresa could not; and so if there’s even the vaguest prospect of another election quickly the Party would have to line up behind him – particularly when polls are now suggesting Corbyn would win a contest held tomorrow. So it suits most Ministers to kick this into the long grass, at least until the Autumn, in the hope that another figure emerges and/or Boris messes up. Personally I’d like to see Ruth Davidson coming to the fore, notwithstanding it is nearly impossible because this would require a by-election…
Of course, the immediate reason the PM lives on in No10 at all is because of the deal reached with the DUP. Except that no one is entirely sure whether there has been a deal yet – the announcement over the weekend that there had been and subsequent retraction was another low moment in a pretty dreadful few days. And the whole relationship with the DUP smacks of the old days of May: decided upon with a couple of hours of polls closing on Thursday with no thought as to the consequences and a total disregard of the views of her MPs and others. It is the parting gift of Timothy-Hill, and has left serious questions about things that really matter like the peace process, our relationship with Ireland, and what the Tories stand for given the views of the people they are now in bed with. It feels like this can only be a temporary fix, not an arrangement for the long term.
So Mrs May twists in the wind, at least for a while. Ironically enough her performance, and that of the Tories as a whole, may improve now that Cabinet government will be resumed, a more pragmatic view will be taken of Brexit and without the bottleneck of her cabal at the top of the administration. But this is just purgatory for the PM. Fine, she can demote lesser figures like Liz Truss and Andrea Leadsom but overall her reshuffle simply illustrated how weak she now is, with all the so-called ‘big beasts’ keeping their places. The DUP debacle will rumble on damagingly. The Labour Party and others will keep on calling for her head. When finally she goes, I expect in a few months’ time, it will presumably be a relief to her and definitely a blessing for everyone else.