Sunday 25 September 2016

May will begin her premiership facing a deep and dangerous split in the Conservative party

James Kirkup

Published 12/07/2016 | 02:30

Theresa May officially launches her campaign to become prime minister at Austin Court in Birmingham yesterday morning. May is to be the UK’s second female prime minister, after her only remaining rival, Andrea Leadsom, dropped out of the race. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
Theresa May officially launches her campaign to become prime minister at Austin Court in Birmingham yesterday morning. May is to be the UK’s second female prime minister, after her only remaining rival, Andrea Leadsom, dropped out of the race. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

There is no bad way to become prime minister, but this not how Theresa May wanted to win. Andrea Leadsom's remarkable self-immolation will add just one more major problem to the huge and heavy in-tray that awaits her in Downing Street.

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That problem is how to deal with the significant number of Conservative MPs and Conservative members who actually wanted Ms Leadsom to become PM, or who at least wanted a proper contest to decide who got to be leader.

The real risk for Ms May is that some of Ms Leadsom's backers believe that they have been cheated, their candidate unfairly shunted out of the race by political opponents and a hostile media.

Never mind the dignified and magnanimous statement Ms Leadsom gave, in which she pledged loyalty to the new PM, presumably in the expectation of a cabinet job.

And never mind the facts here. Never mind that what the Leadsomites consider unfair hostility is in fact just normal scrutiny for people at the top of politics. What matters is what her followers believe.

And they believe, truly believe, that she is the victim of dirty tricks. Minutes after she quit, Iain Duncan Smith spoke of "a genuine operation to demean Andrea".

Owen Paterson said Ms Leadsom had been "under the most brutal assault".

For men like Mr Duncan Smith and Mr Paterson, Ms Leadsom's leadership was a chance to get their party back from the Cameron-centrists, to take the Tories back to "family values" and an unflinching commitment to leaving the EU as quickly and sharply as possible.

That dream has now been snatched away from them. Their party will now be led by a woman who voted Remain and who, in their eyes, is not wholly and utterly committed to severing all ties with the EU.

And for all the gracious words in public, there is deep and real anger among some of Ms Leadsom's backers about the way events have unfolded - just as they are still angry that Margaret Thatcher was toppled as leader, angry that John Major signed the Maastricht Treaty, angry that David Cameron became leader . . . We are talking about people who are very, very good at holding grudges. Yesterday's events have just added one more grievance to their collection.

Remember that for all the woefulness of the Labour opposition, the Conservatives do not have a commanding position in parliament. With a majority of just 16, it takes only a handful of Tory MPs to block government business and make the prime minister's life miserable.

John Major's agonies at the hands of the Maastricht rebels (Mr Duncan Smith was one, as were several other Leadsom backers) are an object lesson in how badly things can go for a Tory prime minister with a small majority and a group of MPs determined to cause trouble on Europe.

So Ms May will have to work very hard, very quickly, to reconcile the Leadsom Tories to her leadership. Expect her to offer Ms Leadsom herself a cabinet post, albeit not a senior one, as an olive branch.

But Mr Duncan Smith and Mr Paterson and the like? Securing their loyalty will be much, much harder. I'd expect them to remain firmly on the backbenches, watching Prime Minister May like hawks and swooping on anything that looks like backsliding on Brexit.

The fear among Ms May's friends is that the Leadsomites will end up as the tail wagging the Tory dog, that in order to placate them and the voters they represent, she will have to take a harder line on Europe than she might otherwise have done. Just ask David Cameron how appeasing the Tory Right on Europe works out.

Away from Europe (yes, there will be political debates about things other than Europe), the angry Leadsomites could make possibly even more trouble. Ms May's leadership launch yesterday morning (it feels like a year ago now) was a remarkably centrist pitch, suggesting continuity from Mr Cameron's social policy agenda.

Many Tories backed Ms Leadsom in the hope of reversing Mr Cameron's modernisation agenda. How will they feel about a leader who got her job without a full election seeking to continue that agenda?

Already, some are suggesting that the outcome of the leadership non-contest will cost the Conservatives dear as more of its traditionalist, Leave-voting supporters abandon the party. One senior Tory backer of Ms Leadsom put it this way: "This is a very good day for Ukip." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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