Chaos: An Update
All the post-election goings on from over the weekend.
One of the many protesters outside Downing Street on Friday. Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images
The story so far: previously impregnable political Death Star Theresa May has been revealed to be a weepy schoolgirl crying in the airing cupboard about her poor GCSE results.
Meanwhile: Jeremy Corbyn is celebrating his election victory and sizing up carpet samples for Downing Street. Apparently, that's what happens when you win 57 fewer seats – you're feted as the man with the Midas touch, while your opponent must hobble off to be whipped and scourged in an elaborate televised national humiliation ritual.
That ritual has gathered pace since Friday afternoon. Conservatives are unforgiving of failure. In his final edition, George Osborne – who'd spent election night as a pundit on ITV looking oddly cheerful for a Tory grandee – chose to run May's tin-eared Downing Street speech in the Evening Standard under the headline "Queen of Denial".
By Friday evening, backbenchers were breaking cover to denounce their leader, her manifesto and most especially the campaign. Heidi Allen, MP for South Cambridgeshire, gave May six months before she would have to resign. "If this was any other election in any other time in our history, you'd say the Prime Minister needs to stand down now… but we're about to start Brexit negotiations," she said. The website ConservativeHome polled their readers: two-thirds thought May should go. A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times suggested 48 percent thought she should stand down, 38 percent continue.
The blame game became a chance to settle old scores. Rumours began to circulate that Tory backbenchers had told the PM her joint chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, would have to resign or else they'd trigger a leadership election on Monday.
The beef with Hill and Timothy had been percolating for a while in politico circles, but now it finally broke cover. In The Times, former Downing Street director of communications Katie Perrior, who resigned in April, delivered a death-blow to the pair in a column recounting her time inside May's operation.
They were, she wrote: "Rude, abusive, childish bellowing… batshit." They belittled even senior cabinet ministers, sent sweary midnight texts. Hill had ordered Ruth Davidson down to London to bollock her for not campaigning on the agreed message of "strong and stable". But when Davidson turned up, Hill was elsewhere – a wasted trip.
The deeper version of the story hinted that the pair were control freaks who had kept the PM in a kind of Kathy Bates in Misery house arrest, gently sedated, softly gaslighted, sequestered from even her key ministers. Whatever the truth, clearly the pair had made many enemies, and now, as the panic vortex closed in, those enemies were taking their revenge. By Saturday afternoon, Hill and Timothy were gone. They were replaced by Gavin Barwell, the former Housing Minister who lost his seat on Thursday.
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In the face of so many simultaneous conflicts, Downing Street ground to a halt. The re-shuffle that would normally be expected post-election didn't happen. All key ministers were simply reappointed. The PM was too weak to risk alienating any Tory big beasts and sparking a coup. They even reversed the polarity and started extracting concessions from her – Philip Hammond signalled his continued support was conditional on a more jobs-focused (read: less migration-focused) Brexit stance.
Meanwhile, the forces of moderate Labour were sucking it up, and finding themselves remarkably cheerful in doing so. Owen Smith, Corbyn's leadership challenger last summer, admitted he'd been wrong; ancien regime bigwigs Jack Straw and David Blunkett did the rounds on LBC announcing their previous wrongness. Even Chuka Umunna – who had reportedly been secretly planning a leadership challenge had Corbyn failed – was in reaching-out mode: "[Jeremy]'s had a brilliant campaign," he said.
But even on the most basic question of who would govern and how, nothing was settled.
May had announced her DUP "deal" in her Downing Street speech on Friday. But this was an opening position rather than a final result. On Saturday night, Downing Street said a deal had been pretty much struck, but that talks are ongoing, with Chief Whip Gavin Williamson flying to Belfast to meet DUP chiefs. His pact will be put to Cabinet and backbenchers tomorrow, then sold to the public.
What's in it is still unclear. Rumours circulated of a potential free-vote for MPs on lowering the abortion term limit. Others pointed out that abortion is already a devolved power to Stormont, so why would the DUP want to extend that to England? By Sunday, DUP insiders were tipping that the government would have to abandon the social care plan.
Up and down the land, mass-googling of "What is Northern Ireland" continued. Journalists merrily dug the dirt on the DUP's reptilian past. A picture of ex-leader Peter Robinson in a paramilitary UVF beret was splashed on the front of the Mirror. The obligatory petition against the pact hit half a million signatures in under 24 hours. Lily Allen found herself outside Downing Street leading the usual Socialist Worker protest-trolls in a Tories Out demonstration against representative democracy and the formalities of the British constitution – with obvious echoes of last summer's protests against a referendum that got the result wrong by asking the people.
For her part, Ruth Davidson, newly empowered after the Tories took 12 seats in Scotland, began to flex her muscles on a divergent Scottish Brexit strategy. She began talking up something called an "open Brexit". The Telegraph went so far as to suggest Davidson was looking to form a breakaway Scottish Conservative Party to give herself more leverage. Davidson dismissed this as "bollocks".
But Davidson had good reasons to be distancing: a Scottish protestant who will shortly be gay-marrying an Irish Catholic, she had already paid a visit to the DUP last year, for Channel 4, to try to understand their Christian fundamentalism. Moderate Tories already had their heads in their hands; grumblings over potential "brand retoxification" intensified.
With the PM holed and listing, the Sunday papers dutifully rehashed their runners-and-riders next-PM lists. David Davis? He's 68. Amber Rudd? Her tiny majority means she'll be booted out at the next election. Phil Hammond? Only Philip on earth duller than Philip May. Ruth Davidson? Doesn't have a Westminster seat. Boris? He's Boris.
In short, marooned a few feet from the finishing line of power, Conservative MPs were left juggling several equally useless possibilities. Either call another general election with the same leader (disastrous), not call another general election (paralysis), replace the leader but have no new election (treacherous), or fight one with a new leader (precarious).
With seven days until Brexit talks commence, British politics is now history's hardest sudoku.