Tom Richmond: No time for Tories to ‘rejoice’ over Labour as George Osborne turns up heat on Theresa May

Theresa May is coming under fire from supporters of David Cameron and George Osborne.
Theresa May is coming under fire from supporters of David Cameron and George Osborne.
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LIKE so many Tories, party grandee Sir Eric Pickles could not contain himself when Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected as Labour leader with an even bigger mandate than 12 months ago.

The one-time Bradford Council leader, who served as communities secretary during the coalition, tweeted the word “Rejoice” because he believes the Opposition is bereft of credibility.

However, there’s nothing to rejoice about in the power struggle between the Labour leadership, MPs and Trotsyite-like Momentum activists in local parties when strong scrutiny underpins a Parliament democracy – the point David Blunkett, the former home secretary, made so eloquently on these pages on Saturday. It remains to be seen if a shadow cabinet of sorts can be formed.

And the glee of Keighley-born Sir Eric also masks David Cameron and George Osborne’s growing bitterness over their EU referendum defeat – and their dismay at Theresa May’s style of leadership.

Even though Mr Cameron promised loyalty when he resigned as Witney MP, he clearly resents Mrs May not seeking his counsel since she moved into 10 Downing Street on July 13 – and allowed this to leak into the public domain. Her support for a new generation of grammar schools is also at odds with the former prime minister’s position while it is now claimed that Mr Cameron described Mrs May – then home secretary – as ‘lily-livered’ when the pair clashed over immigration controls.

And then there’s the former chancellor, who still does not realise that his position had become untenable following his proposed cuts to disability payments during his last Budget; his subsequent disappearing act as Iain Duncan Smith resigned; and then his central role in the EU referendum in which the electorate rejected his warnings of economic Armageddon.

Piqued that Mrs May declared him surplus to requirements, Mr Osborne now appears to be on political manoeuvres which will only make it harder for the Government to make progress on its three central priorities – delivering Brexit, eradicating the deficit and improving the social mobility of all.

Ten days ago, he launched his own Northern Powerhouse foundation because he appeared miffed that Mrs May wanted to empower every region, and not just the North.

Then Jim O’Neill quit as commercial secretary to the Treasury on Friday – the first resignation of the May Government. He is not a household name, but it is significant because the former Goldman Sachs boss was headhunted by Mr Osborne to deliver the Northern Powerhouse and clearly believes enthusiasm for it is ebbing away. He was also unhappy that the new PM refused to rubber-stamp Chinese investment in the new Hinkley Point nuclear power station without undertaking due diligence of her own.

That the mealy-mouthed Lord O’Neill also quit the Tory benches in the Lords – he will sit as a cross-bencher – gives him even more freedom to speak out as Mr Osborne’s unofficial spokesman there.

And then there was Mr Osborne’s policy speech in America later on the same day when he urged Mrs May to delay triggering Article 50, the process that begins Britain’s exit from the EU, until the “closest possible economic and security relationship” has been secured.

Most ominously of all from the Government’s point of view, he did not deny his leadership ambitions. Using a rugby analogy first coined by Boris Johnson, Mr Osborne said: “If the ball came loose at the back of the scrum, I wouldn’t fumble it.”

In other words, he has served notice on Mrs May that he has his eyes on her job – further reason why Sir Eric was unwise to use the word ‘rejoice’ in an echo of Margaret Thatcher’s defiant statement in Downing Street when British forces recaptured South Georgia in 1982.

Unlike Sir Eric’s political heroine, who was not for turning over economic philosophy, Mrs May – like so many of the leading Leave campaigners – still does not know which way to turn over Brexit, a task which will not be made easier by a small Commons majority and now the Cameron and Osborne clique blaming the current PM for their own failure to sell the benefits of globalisation to working- class communities where the June 23 referendum was effectively lost.

This is epitomised by Mr Cameron’s newly-knighted communications chief Sir Craig Oliver claiming Mrs May failed to support his boss on 13 separate occasions before she reluctantly “came off the fence” for Remain – and then only after a “visibly wound up” prime minster gave her a dressing down over the telephone.

“Amid the murder and betrayal of the campaign, one figure stayed very still at the centre of it all – Theresa May. Now she is the last one standing,” he wrote with bitterness.

Given the number of disgruntled former Ministers and civil servants who remain loyal to Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne, in addition to those still in office who, I’m told, continue to consult the former chancellor before taking decisions, the splits in the Conservative Party remain as wide as Labour’s great divide.

The only difference is that Mrs May has been more effective than Mr Corbyn at masking them – for now. With the country’s future at stake over the EU, and so many questions of loyalty, it could be many years before either of the main parties is in a position to rejoice...