Tom Richmond: Welcome to limbo-land as Theresa May's authority ebbs away

PRIME MINISTERS are at their strongest immediately after an election when they have been invited by the Queen to form the next government '“ there's been no time for good intentions to unravel.

Theresa May is in office, but not in power.
Theresa May is in office, but not in power.

Yet Theresa May has never been weaker. No Commons majority, no personal mandate and no credibility. The more people saw of her, the less they liked. A Tory leader who warned against a ‘coalition of chaos’ is now at the mercy of her colleagues, her party, Northern Ireland’s hard-line Democratic Unionists and, to paraphrase Harold Macmillan’s timeless maxim, events.

Left humiliated despite achieving the Tory’s greatest share of the vote since Margaret Thatcher’s second landslide in 1987, it’s now a lack of humility – most notably in Mrs May’s insensitive Downing Street statement when she talked, without sense of irony, about a need for stability – that is compounding the paralysis as the premier’s authority ebbs away like the flotsam flowing down the Thames through her Maidenhead constituency.

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She had to be ordered by Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 group of Tory backbenchers, to sack her ‘toxic’ advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill before apologising to defeated Tory MPs let down by a hopeless campaign which lacked hope. She had to be told by Chancellor Philip Hammond that he was deeply hurt at being marginalised, and briefed against, by Mrs May’s now ex-aides and that he wanted a greater say over a pro-business Brexit as a price for his loyalty.

And she had to be reminded by Ruth Davidson, the Tory leader in Scotland whose positive campaign north of the border effectively saved the Government’s skin, that the Democratic Unionist Party’s implacable opposition to same-sex marriage was incompatible with social and liberal Conservatives. The Prime Minister is in office, but not in power.

If it couldn’t get any worse, it emerged that Downing Street had published – erroneously – a statement saying the Tories and DUP had reached an outline agreement that would allow Mrs May to attempt to govern. Just who is now in charge? Larry the cat? The Downing Street chief mouser couldn’t do a lot worse.

All this as Mrs May, described by critics as a ‘dead woman walking’, prepares to look her Cabinet in the eye today; face down her backbenchers; meet DUP leader Arlene Foster; present a Queen’s Speech to Parliament which will determine her strength as a lame duck premier and then begin Brexit negotiations with EU officials who are laughing all the way to the bank. Britain is a hostage to fortune.

Yet, talking to senior Tories, this – believe it or not – is the best Britain can hope for. Thursday’s result, they say, has to be respected; there’s no appetite for another election; a successor to Mrs May would have no mandate of their own and the only consolation is that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn does not have sufficient support in Parliament, not least because the DUP – this election’s king-makers – will never forgive his previous support of Sinn Fein/IRA.

With Theresa May, who won the most votes and seats, appearing beleaguered, and a virtuous Mr Corbyn, who lost the election, assuming the mantle of Prime Minister-in-waiting, uncontrollable political forces appear to be conspiring against her.

There is historic precedent – Tory premier Stanley Baldwin’s desire for a personal mandate in 1923 also backfired and a hung parliament saw Ramsay MacDonald form the first ever Labour government. Having visited Belfast recently, I’m also uneasy at the future of Northern Ireland’s peace process, one of the great political achievements of these times being compromised by any Tory / DUP stitch-up. However, if she’s to have any chance of short-term survival, she needs to attempt to assert what authority she has left.

First, the terms of any deal with the DUP must be published in full. The public expect total transparency and Cabinet decision-making more inclusive.

Second, Mrs May – a leader driven by a desire to serve – should relax the borrowing rules so NHS staff, teachers and other public servants can be given a pay rise as a gesture of goodwill. Her
lack of empathy towards a nurse during the BBC Question Time special spoke volumes.

Third, the Prime Minister should look to prioritise those issues where the Tories have sufficient common ground with their opponents. Britain still has to function.

Fourth, Mrs May should forget the robotic soundbites – even she said they were “stupid” – and start listening. One re-elected Tory MP told me that he was ignored when he repeatedly warned the Conservative high command that Labour was winning the ground war on the doorsteps. However Mrs May can’t blame others for her predicament – it was her decision to call this election.

Finally, her Oxford University contemporary and political soul-mate Damian Green’s appointment to First Secretary of State in yesterday’s reshuffle means he can pick up the pieces if Mrs May is still forced to fall on her sword at a time not of her choosing. He’s now Deputy Prime Minister in all but name. What would this achieve?

It would buy a humiliated Theresa May time – and nothing else – if she’s to avoid the suggestion that she has taken up ‘squatters rights’ as a mere tenant of 10 Downing Street rather than Prime Minister. Welcome to limbo-land.