October 05, 2017
May clings on
The Daily Telegraph and some of its ultra right-wing commentators were quick to declare the end of Theresa May's premiership. There was nothing wrong with the content of her speech at the Tory party conference. May suffered a coughing attack, a prankster walked up the stage and handed her a fake P45 end-of-employment notice and, to cap it all, the stage set behind her collapsed. If you are into symbolism, you need no more information.
But when you wake up the next morning, you ask yourself: what has changed? The maths of replacing her is still the same. The Tories still failed to make the transition from focusing on what they hate - Europe, essentially - to what they want.
The best comment this morning, in our view, was from Simon Jenkins in the Guardian. Like us he, too, mocked all the political commentators who predicted May's downfall by the autumn, and notes that she is still there and shows no signs of leaving.
"May has a remarkable capacity to bring out the worst in those round her. It is a skill not to be underrated."
Jenkins make two substantive points. The first is that May may well emerge from yesterday's debacle curiously strengthened. Her greatest lack so far has been humanity. During her speech, she was compelled to convey humour, vulnerability, and emotion. She will continue to be unpopular, but the Tories elected her, and are now stuck with her.
But Jenkins also noted that May failed to address Brexit. This is where she truly faltered. She dodged the confrontation between the hard and the soft Brexiteers within her party, a confrontation that needs to be resolved soon. Eventually she will have to do this, as both John Major and David Cameron did during their period in office.
Peter Foster observed that Brussels will dismiss May's soft threat to walk out of the talks if there is no agreement, which she no longer phrases in terms of "no deal is better than a bad deal". In Manchester, she said:
"It is our responsibility as a government to prepare for every eventuality. And let me reassure everyone in this hall – that is exactly what we are doing."
Foster makes the point that the EU largely discounts that threat because they see that the UK is clearly not preparing for this eventuality, while they did see May's overtures in Florence. The trouble is that she may not carry the Tories with her. Michel Barnier and the EU27 may then end up driving the Brexit process over a cliff.
The Spectator makes another important point in an editorial about the Tories' lack of a firm agenda. The Tories are good at diagnosing problems, but not able to come up with solutions. The biggest policy pledge from the conference is to build more social housing, which the Spectators says is wrong. The problem with the UK housing market is an artificial depression of supply because of land laws, and the refusal by local councils to make land available for development. Instead of state-subsidised mortgages, a much better way to fight the housing crisis is to allow more housing to be built. The Tories' approach will end up doing the opposite: by increasing demand for existing houses, they will drive up the housing market even further.