Downing Street staff could be forgiven if they had a giant clock somewhere in the building, counting down to 5pm to symbolise the start of the summer parliamentary recess and end of part of one of project ‘Save Theresa.’
Few if any would have returned to Parliament after Easter expecting to rise for summer in the situation we’re in. Yet despite the most catastrophic electoral result of recent times, Theresa May clings on (as Matt Chorley at Red Box would say, obviously). Labelled a “dead woman walking” by George Osborne on the night of the election (clearly with no sense of vindictiveness), Mrs May has remained in Downing Street.
The plan immediately post-election for Downing Street was to get the PM through to the summer recess more akin to a cast member of the Walking Dead than a dead woman walking. The arrival of summer brings some, albeit not much, respite and a chance bolster the Prime Minister’s position. Here’s how:
Crack the whip
Despite various senior Cabinet ministers alleged to be ‘on manoeuvres’ for the Tory Party leadership, a challenge to Mrs May hasn’t materialised. In fact, the PM is in a far better place than she might have expected on 9 June.
She appears to have the all-important backing of the 1922 Committee, which will help in maintaining some level of authority over the backbenches. While there remain vocal critics within Tory ranks, there’s no appetite for (yet) another election, so dissent will be kept in check to keep the Government in post. And despite unsubtle mutterings of the likes of David Davis, perhaps Philip Hammond and, of course, Boris Johnson eyeing the leadership, a challenge seems unlikely in the short-term.
Boris appears to have, at least temporarily, poisoned his brand. Philip Hammond is the subject of more backstage intrigue and briefing than a Le Carre novel. And there’s also a push from the backbenches to give the younger generation a chance, as Tom Tugendhat’s ascension to Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee hints at. That would seemingly put longer odds on a successful challenge by David Davis.
In those circumstances, the PM could lean on the support of the 1922 Committee, capitalise on its frustration with Cabinet discipline, and reassert authority in a far more forceful way than seen thus far.
Stop the churn
Over the last 12 months, senior officials have jumped ship from Downing Street faster than cast members in Titanic. Some are alleged to have been forced out by Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill – who were themselves forced out after polling day. But whether a consequence of internal infighting and workplace culture, or seeking opportunities elsewhere, the Downing Street staff looks very different and much depleted to a year ago.
The PM and her senior advisors need the summer to rebuild the Downing Street machine and establish a more settled team. While that can’t involve a return to the very centralised control of the Timothy-Hill days – Tory backbenchers won’t allow it – Downing Street needs a more settled feel come September.
Pick a Brexit side
The consequence of the election was Cabinet ministers felt empowered to break ranks and set out what their preference for Brexit should be. And this has focused particularly over the fundamental issue of what the negotiating priority should be – freedom of movement and migration, or focusing on jobs and the economy.
Ask David Davis, and you may well get an answer prioritising immigration. But, talk to Chancellor Philip Hammond, and you’ll get an insistence on prioritising jobs, protecting the cornerstones of the British economy, and ensuring access to skilled workers.
As part of reasserting Cabinet discipline, the Prime Minister needs to essentially pick a side and reach a consensus that will guide negotiations in the coming months. There’s a strong argument in favour of Philip Hammond’s perspective – particularly when considering the financial services industry that contributes enormously to the economy. Other financial centres, chiefly Paris and Frankfurt, are looking to lure away powerhouses from the City – and a number have already indicated their willingness to up sticks and relocate to the continent.
This has broader implications and, with the Cabinet also at odds over maintaining austerity or loosening the public purse strings, the Government can ill-afford to lose service sector revenue nor the taxes from its high earning employees.