Despite the unusual twists and turns that have characterised the political landscape in recent years, there is nothing new about plotting and treachery. A quick look back through the last few decades shows that when a general election is not enough to finish off a Prime Minister’s career, the parties themselves do a good job of removing their own leaders, as Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair can all testify. After gambling her wafer-thin Commons majority on an early general election and losing it all, it is not surprising that the knives are out for Theresa May. On the contrary, it is remarkable that Mrs May is still in post, more than three months after that disastrous result, without a single attempt to dislodge her from office. However, there are still plenty within the Conservative Party who have not forgiven her, and recent revelations suggest that even her most senior ministers have been plotting against her leadership.
In a new book written by the highly-respected journalist Tim Shipman, Cabinet plots against Mrs May are laid bare as the level of treachery within the Tory ranks is revealed. Shipman is no lurid sensationalist, and so one can be confident that the contents of his book will be accurate; after all, his chronicle of the Brexit campaign, All Out War, is almost universally considered to be the best presentation of the EU referendum that has been written so far. This makes the revelations contained within his new book all the more fascinating. According to Shipman, ministers began plotting against May immediately after the election night exit poll predicted that the Tories would lose their majority, and in an unlikely alliance the Chancellor Philip Hammond is reported to have offered Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson his backing for the party leadership.
A Hammond-Johnson deal is surprising for two reasons. Firstly, the two men are on opposite sides of the Brexit divide, with Hammond, an avid Remainer, favouring a ‘soft’ Brexit in contrast to Johnson’s strident euroscepticism. Additionally, the Chancellor is known to have leadership ambitions of his own, despite his lack of support within both the parliamentary party and the Tory grassroots. Presumably, Hammond realised he could never win the leadership, and believing that a contest would be inevitable following the election, he sought to back the candidate with the best chances of winning in order to keep his job at the Treasury. Remember that during the election campaign, rumours were swirling that Theresa May was preparing to sack Hammond following a breakdown in their relationship; against this backdrop, it becomes obvious why he was so quick to move against the Prime Minister.
Hammond’s actions show that he is a man who puts his own survival ahead of political principle. After all, he despises Boris Johnson, viewing the Foreign Secretary as a blowhard and a lightweight, and in recent days the two men have reverted to clashing over Brexit; presumably Mrs May’s survival means that their leadership pact is a thing of the past. Likewise, Johnson remains bitter about the way in which his leadership hopes were dramatically torpedoed by Michael Gove last year, and is desperate for another chance to take the top job. It is therefore unsurprising that these two men were involved in backroom leadership discussions on election night whilst votes were still being counted. However, it turns out that they were not alone, as two other senior ministers were also involved in plots of their own.
According to Shipman, a cabal of influential Tory moderates decided that, in the event of a leadership battle, Home Secretary Amber Rudd would be their favoured candidate. Rudd’s backers included David Cameron, John Major and George Osborne, who turned to the Home Secretary after their first choice, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, made clear that she had no interest in replacing Mrs May. Meanwhile, on the pro-Brexit right of the party, Brexit Secretary David Davis was preparing to launch a leadership bid of his own in order to ensure that the government’s commitment to full withdrawal from the EU would not be diminished. Davis, who lost to David Cameron in the 2005 Tory leadership election, remains an ambitious figure despite his age (he will be 70 next year), and in an article in the i newspaper today it is claimed that he still has his eyes on Downing Street.
These treacherous tales make for intriguing, if somewhat depressing, reading. All four of the Cabinet plotters have been outspoken in their public support for Theresa May in the aftermath of the election, and so it is disappointing to learn that in private they have all been clamouring to replace her. This merely reinforces every negative stereotype of politicians as cynical, back-stabbing careerists, whilst the four ministers in question hardly exude many obvious leadership qualities. Amber Rudd is by far the most impressive of the bunch, yet she is hampered by a lack of experience at the top of government, a commitment to the EU which could jeopardise Brexit, and a tiny majority in her marginal seat of Hastings. David Davis is a skilled media performer, but his tenure as Brexit Secretary shows that he is more comfortable in a TV studio than at the negotiating table; he also holds rather fringe views on issues such as civil liberties, military intervention and is a friend of George Galloway. As for the conniving duo of Hammond and Johnson, their actions epitomise everything that is wrong with modern politics.
The only satisfaction that can be taken away from this episode is that there was, of course, no leadership election. Not a single Conservative MP has attempted to launch a coup against Theresa May, not a single government minister has resigned in order to trigger a contest, and public demand for a change of leader has broadly died down. All of this makes the plotting of these four Cabinet ministers look even more laughable, and serves as a sharp reminder of who is in control. Theresa May is not a perfect Prime Minister (who is?) and she did make a series of critical mistakes during the election campaign, but she remains the most qualified individual to lead the country. The post-election exploits of Johnson, Hammond, Rudd and Davis will only strengthen Mrs May’s hand as she prepares for next week’s Party Conference, and may even give her the justification needed for a comprehensive Cabinet reshuffle.