Just before Christmas I bumped into a Cabinet Minister who quizzed me on my predictions for the New Year. I tersely explained that after the events of the previous 12 months I was out of the political fortune-telling business, but he pressed me.
‘I think,’ I replied, ‘that 2018 is going to be the year you realise Theresa May is going to be harder to dislodge than you hoped.’
Last week’s reshuffle was described in some quarters as a reshuffling of the deckchairs on the Titanic. It wasn’t.
Theresa May pictured following the government reshuffle on January 8
It was the moment the Prime Minister picked up the chairs, the tables, the wardrobes, the beds and just about everything else she could lay her hands on, and barricaded the door of Downing Street.
‘What’s the central message of her reshuffle?’ Westminster observers queried. ‘I’m going nowhere’ was the answer.
Before the carefully planned reorganisation of the top rank of government slowly disintegrated – opening with the 35-second tenure of Chris Grayling as Conservative Party Chairman, and culminating with May’s capitulation to Cabinet hard-man Jeremy Hunt – the prediction was that this would be the moment the Prime Minister began to pass the baton to a new generation.
She would torch the dead wood, and introduce a new dynamic cadre of Ministers to rejuvenate her Government. And in the process prepare the ground for her succession.
That wasn’t what transpired. Damian Hinds – a politician so anonymous it would have been no surprise if he’d emerged from Downing Street swathed in bandages and sporting sunglasses – was promoted to Education Secretary.
Esther McVey was frantically rushed into the Department of Work and Pensions when Justine Greening jumped ship to join the ranks of the anti-Brexit mutineers. And that was it. The ministries of Whitehall remained stubbornly dejuvenated. The baton had not even made it past the start line.
Damian Hinds – a politician so anonymous it would have been no surprise if he’d emerged from Downing Street swathed in bandages and sporting sunglasses – was promoted to Education Secretary
Esther McVey (left) was frantically rushed into the Department of Work and Pensions when Justine Greening (right) jumped ship to join the ranks of the anti-Brexit mutineers
No 10 insiders insist May’s aim was to ensure stability as Brexit negotiations enter their crucial second stage, and point to changes at Conservative HQ and the junior ministerial ranks.
Some Tory Kremlinologists have claimed she is manoeuvring to give her chosen heir – boyish Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson – a clear run at the premiership. But the truth is this reshuffle was designed to support the prime ministerial ambitions of one person – the Prime Minister.
Some Tory Kremlinologists have claimed the Prime Minister is manoeuvring to give her chosen heir – boyish Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson (pictured) – a clear run at the premiership
Since the Election, the Conservative Party has been clinging to the hope that when the time came, Mrs May would do the decent thing and lay down the seals of office without a fight. Future trials and tribulations could persuade her to do that. But the events of this week have left her Ministers and backbenchers facing an unpalatable truth.
If they want to ensure Theresa May steps down before the next Election they are going to have to start putting in place contingency plans to oust her.
Over the past few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s advance has stalled. The Prime Minister has shown resilience and skill in stabilising her Government and delivering on the first stage of Brexit talks.
But there are two things guaranteed to adorn the keys of Downing Street with a red ribbon and hand them to the Absolute Boy.
One is to again try to force Mrs May down the throats of a reluctant electorate. And the other is for the Tory Party to implode in an orgy of infighting over her succession. Ideally that succession would involve Conservatives settling around a unity candidate. But it seems unlikely that activists would stomach a second coronation, or that either of the two wings of the party would agree to step down in favour of the other.
So it is imperative that the process of identifying their respective champions begins now.
For the Tory modernising faction this could be Amber Rudd, He-Man Hunt, or Ruth Davidson – if the logistics of her escape from Scotland could be organised. For the traditionalists, Boris Johnson, David Davis or the Lazarus-like Michael Gove. But what is absolutely imperative is that neither faction allows itself to engage in the sort of fratricide that saw the Labour moderates defenestrate themselves and their party.
Then the Conservative Party needs to establish a clear timetable for Mrs May’s departure.
If the Prime Minister wants to identify one herself, all to the good. But if she doesn’t, then the matter must be taken out of her hands.
Both Amber Rudd (left) and Ruth Davidson (right) are favourites to take over from May in a modernisation of the Tory party
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt is also posed as a potential successor to May
There can be no return to the tortuous cycle of ham-fisted horse trading and abortive rebellion that characterised the disastrous end of the Blair/Brown era.
A change of leadership represents the final bullet in the final gun of the Tory arsenal. So the trigger must be pulled with cold precision, not in a blind panic, with the hot breath of the voters on ministerial necks.
And finally the Conservative Party needs to do something Theresa May has struggled and failed to do since the very first day she entered Downing Street. It needs to decide who and what it is governing for.
There are two basic strategies the Tories can pursue.
They can adopt what could loosely be termed ‘The 52 Per Cent’ model, reaching out to the Brexit majority, sticking two fingers up to the gilded metropolitan elite, and knocking the nation back into shape with some plain old 1950s-style common sense.
Or they can embrace white-heat, ‘Cameron 2.0’ reform, driving Britain into the 21st Century, and building a Conservative Party and country rich in difference and diversity.
But they have to make a choice. Mrs May’s diet of warmed-up Milibandism sprinkled with a topping of thinly grated Thatcherism isn’t going to cut it.
As I pointed out last week, for all her innate decency and resilience she has no clear vision about what she wants to do about NHS funding, or the pension deficit, or welfare reform, or defence renewal or any of the myriad other major issues facing Britain.
So Brexit must be safely delivered. And then Theresa May’s political mission must end.
The fate of the Conservative Party, and the country, rests upon on it.
Sadiq slips off his Trump hook
Sadiq Khan warmly welcomed the news that Donald Trump had called off his trip to London, Boris Johnson accused him of political grandstanding, dubbing him a ‘pompous popinjay’. But I understand the capital’s mayor has a very personal reason to breathe a sigh of relief at the cancellation. Back in May 2016, when Trump was still a Republican candidate, Khan invited him to his home. ‘I invite Donald Trump to come to London. Meet my wife and my daughters. Meet my friends and my neighbours. Meet Londoners who are British and who are Muslim,’ he said. Unfortunately, this olive branch created a bit of a backlash within the Khan household. ‘Sadiq’s wife wasn’t happy,’ a friend tells me. ‘She told him, “There’s no way that man is setting foot in my house!” ’ Fortunately for Mrs Khan, the prospect of a Trump home invasion has been successfully repelled.