This article was first published in Reaction
Parliament rises for the summer recess this week and MPs and Peers will go off for a much needed break from the hothouse atmosphere of the Palace of Westminster. It has been barely six weeks since voters delivered the surprise General Election result, and still only just over a year since those same voters upended the country’s relationship with the European Union, the consequences of which are unknown but bear down on British politics relentlessly. Everyone directly involved – Ministers, MPs, Peers and journalists are struggling to come to terms with what it all means.
The General Election result threatened to see the immediate ejection of Theresa May from No 10, but understanding the need for swift change the Prime Minister installed the experienced and highly capable Gavin Barwell as her Chief of Staff, promoted the affable, experienced and very tough Damian Green to the role of First Secretary of State – effectively her deputy, and leant heavily on Gavin Williamson, her Chief Whip. Between them, and working with the grain of the Prime Minister’s instinct for service and duty, they have steadied a ship that looked as though it was going down by the bows. It is a remarkable achievement.
So effective have their efforts been that those senior Cabinet colleagues who have been publicly jockeying to replace her are looking increasingly foolish and isolated. The Prime Minister’s relationship with her predecessor, David Cameron, has always followed the path of a sine wave but following a private Downing Street meeting he let his support for her continuance in office be known. Indeed he went further and suggested punishments he would like to mete out to those who were being disloyal, having suffered problems himself at the hands of some of the self same people. This was a significant and important intervention. Then a possibly even more important one came from senior members of the powerful backbench committee of MPs – the ’22. They let it be known that the Prime Minister would receive their support if she chose to discipline or fire troublesome senior colleagues. This strengthens the Prime Minister’s authority and room for manoeuvre significantly. Taken together these interventions mean that Theresa May goes into the summer recess with a huge boost to her position and authority.
Whilst all the briefing and counter briefing has been going on between the Cabinet’s biggest beasts something notable has been happening among Conservative MPs. There has emerged among the 2010, 2015 and 2017 intake of Conservative MPs a pretty widespread sense of disgust at the way this very small number of senior cabinet ministers have been behaving. This group, now a significant number of the Parliamentary Conservative Party, have their political careers ahead of them. They note that those trying to dislodge the Prime Minister are probably at the end of their careers, and are behaving recklessly with the future of the party and the country. These MPs have their focus on what comes after Brexit, the next General Election, and the one after that. Their focus is on the future of the party and the country.
These younger MPs, whose immediate hopes of personal preferment were largely stifled by the lack of change in the post election reshuffle, are increasingly organised and determined to wrest control of the Parliamentary party from their senior colleagues. The recent Select Committee Chairmanship elections are a good indicator of this group’s determination and energy. Those senior Cabinet Ministers who eye No 10 with barely concealed ambition might reflect on the fact that were the Prime Minister to be pushed out of office anytime soon her departure may well see many of them departing with her. Michael Portillo and Michael Heseltine stand as two good examples of clear leadership favourites, who overplayed their hand, and who never made it to the top. They were beaten by the next generation who wanted to move the party on. With Theresa May securely set to serve as Prime Minister for the foreseeable future it is quite likely that the Cabinet’s Big Beasts now jockeying to succeed her are wasting their time – and ours.