Has May damaged future Tory prospects?

by Nick Kent | 04.05.2017

The right-wing political commentator Tim Montgomerie once dismissed Theresa May as Michael Heseltine without the pro-Europeanism. In a sideswipe at someone he thought an unsuitable successor to David Cameron, Montgomerie may have inadvertently stumbled on a truth about the character of our prime minister. Like Michael Heseltine she travels quietly, a calm, considered politician and a notably effective Cabinet minister. But beneath the surface lurks someone with surprising passion, which bursts out like an unexpected volcanic eruption.

Since the 1980s the political parties have fought their election campaigns according to carefully prepared “grids” – detailed schedules of their announcements and other activities.  “Going off the grid” is regarded as dangerous, because it can throw your own side off balance and confuse voters. Yesterday, May dramatically went off the grid with an explosive intervention that delighted her tabloid supporters, accusing “Brussels” of interfering in the election. The submarine prime minister surfaced and fired one torpedo after another at what she thought were the enemy’s ships. Only time will tell whether in the process she sunk some on her own side.

It is hardly surprising the prime minister should have been outraged by the leaking of her dinner discussion with Jean-Claude Juncker.  Even by the standards of Brussels leaks it was astonishing in its audacity and detail. But it was hardly unhelpful to a prime minister who wants to sell herself as someone who stands up to the EU. As one analysis puts it today, if this is an attempt to interfere in the election by Brussels, the European Commission must be full of Tory fanatics.

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The effect of May’s attack will be to rally support among passionate Brexit supporters. Her remarks spoke to the Churchillian idea of a British leader standing up lonely but unafraid against wicked foreigners. While this message may work with some voters in Labour-held marginal seats, it could lose others who voted Tory and Remain.

And then there is the future. By 2021, according to some calculations, Remainers will be in a majority in the UK, because the Leave vote was far older. What then, after a Brexit that – hard or soft – is likely to have led to a loss of jobs and investment in Britain? The Conservatives will have to fight an election in 2022 defending a Brexit that will be theirs in all its consequences, good or bad.

Surprisingly, Number 10 was unable last night to provide Channel 4 News with any evidence that people in Brussels were trying to influence the outcome of the election. That reveals just how sudden this intervention was, as does the fact that many senior ministers were apparently not consulted before the prime minister spoke. Tory Remainers were gritting their teeth and bearing it last night but most will be back in the Commons after the election and waiting to see just what May’s attack does to the chances of a deal with the EU.  

Michael Heseltine’s sudden explosions of passion, such as his resignation over a West Country defence company called Westland, certainly grabbed the headlines but their consequences were not what he intended.

Edited by Hugo Dixon