THERESA May is the ninth premier of my lifetime. Like each of her predecessors, she believes in this country – the British dream – and wants to do her very best.
To be Prime Minister is the ultimate test and just 86 people, from Sir Robert Walpole to Mrs May herself, have been entitled to this privilege.
Yet there are periods in history when the job is too big for one person and requires a new approach to meet the circumstances of the day. The Second World War was one such example, while Brexit is the defining and unparalleled diplomatic challenge of these times.
Leaving aside Mrs May’s election miscalculation which has left her authority gravely weakened, she is, in many respects, a victim of circumstance.
She had the misfortune to come to power following two of the lesser premiers in history – Gordon Brown came close to bankrupting Britain and David Cameron believed he would never have to honour his EU referendum pledge.
Today’s prime ministers are also afforded very limited respect, deference and time by colleagues, opponents and the media alike. Previously, they were seen – and heard – when they had something to say.
Now they’re required to be omnipresent, and the demands of the 24/7 media meant Mrs May had to be dragged in front of a camera on Friday to say she was getting on with the job. As she said over the weekend: “One minute journalists are accusing me of being an ice maiden or a robot, then they claim I’m a weeping woman in dire need of a good night’s sleep.” How demeaning.
In Mrs May’s case, this is not helped by criticisms bordering upon the misogynistic after Fawlty Towers-like mishaps overshadowed her big conference speech. Everyone can have a bad day at the office – and she was certainly not helped by her party.
That said, it appears she’s doing herself no favours – or being advised very badly – when it comes to leading the Government and making sure Ministers, and civil servants, are delivering.
Just because the more recent occupants of 10 Downing Street have tried to assert their personal authority – whether through their personal offices or Cabinet committees – does not mean
Mrs May should micro-manage to this extent. There’s a difference between assertiveness and control-freakery.
Though there’s conflicting advice on whether Mrs May can carry out a major reshuffle – I believe Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wants to be sacked to further his own leadership ambitions – it could be justified if she used this moment to restructure her government.
Essentially Mrs May has three jobs – the successful conclusion, and implementation, of Brexit without undermining the UK’s economic foundations; the revival and modernisation of the public services, including the vexed issue of pay and, finally, the overhaul of a Tory electoral machine unfit for purpose.
She cannot do all three. Rather than cherry-picking Brexit Secretary David Davis’s advisors so Downing Street is better informed about EU negotiations, the PM needs to make this her sole priority.
She needs to be working round-the-clock with Cabinet colleagues, Parliamentarians and meeting European leaders to build up relationships, dialogues and trust. She should be the country’s chief diplomat. Don’t forget Germany’s Angela Merkel, the mother of Europe, is much weakened politically.
She should appoint a trusted colleague to take effective charge of day-to-day business and ensure Ministers in every department are delivering on the home front. There’s been too little delegation.
And then the Tories need a dynamic party chairman who knows how to communicate the Conservative message, understands social media, recognises the need to attract younger activists and realises that every day of dither further emboldens Jeremy Corbyn and Labour. The emotional connection between Government, party appartus and the electorate is shattered.
The one piece of luck that Mrs May has had in the past six months was that last week’s botched coup was masterminded by someone as inept as the treacherous Grant Shapps. She’s also helped that there’s no obvious successor after Mr Johnson’s recent disloyalty backfired, though it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Mrs May’s husband Philip may say ‘enough is enough, you did your best’ – they’re clearly a devoted couple.
Yet, while Theresa May has, to a degree, united her party in sympathy, this only goes so far. She has to start delivering her social justice agenda, and housebuilding programme, and show the Government can still modernise, reform and energise after seven weary years in power, while also dealing with the small matter of Brexit.
Mrs May has somehow got to find the ambition, authority and assertiveness to lead Britain through the biggest political upheaval, and diplomatic negotation, since 1945 while bereft of a majority.
She has one last chance to restructure her government work – and she should take it before her British dream becomes an even bigger nightmare for herself and the country that it’s her proud honour to serve.