Will the Lady with the Sword be the one to save the Tories?
DAN HODGES: Now that Britain knows her, will the Lady with the Sword be the one to save the Tories?
Brenda from Bristol should look away now. Arriving back at Westminster following last week’s local elections, MPs’ thoughts were starting to turn to the General Election.
Not to the poll that Rishi Sunak is expected to call some time next year, but an election that many MPs expect in 2025, when Sir Keir Starmer – or his successor after a short time as PM – is likely to go to the country again in an attempt to stabilise their creaking coalition government.
This political theory behind the idea of a snap election – which would appal Brenda, who famously responded with horror when told of the 2017 General Election – comprises three parts.
The first is what’s seen as the increasing inevitability of a hung Parliament. Following this month’s council elections, Starmer and his allies claimed they were on course for a healthy Commons majority. But very few of his own Labour MPs actually believe it.
‘In my patch, the results weren’t really that good,’ one Shadow Minister told me. ‘We made some gains, but nothing spectacular. We should be performing better.’
Penny came from nowhere to give Rishi a run for his money in leadership race. Now that Britain knows her, will the Lady with the Sword be the one to save the Tories?
Not to the poll that Rishi Sunak is expected to call some time next year, but an election that many MPs expect in 2025
Following this month’s council elections, Starmer and his allies claimed they were on course for a healthy Commons majority
Another Shadow Minister told me: ‘We actually did better than I was expecting. But I never believed we could go from Opposition to a majority in one jump. Doing a Kinnock and then a Blair in one go was always going to be an uphill battle.’
The second part relates to the stability of any subsequent minority Labour government.
Tory strategists are currently combing through obscure Lib Dem policy papers and speeches to uncover what could lie in wait for an unsuspecting electorate in the form of a new Lib/Lab pact. And Starmer and Sir Ed Davey became conspicuously evasive when probed on whether they would consider entering into a formal coalition.
But Lib Dem MPs I’ve spoken to say they believe a Cameron / Clegg-style arrangement is unlikely. ‘Ed Davey served in the 2010 coalition,’ one told me, ‘and he doesn’t want to risk a repeat of that. He might help prop up Labour, but he’s not going to risk a repeat of 2015. That was a near-death experience.’
If this is the case, Starmer would probably have to rely on a so-called Confidence and Supply deal similar to the one that saw the DUP supporting Theresa May after her disastrous 2017 election showing. And that, as May found to her cost, is no way of sustaining any government in power for an extended period. Hence the feeling there will be an Election in 2025.
‘In those circumstances, Keir would do a Wilson,’ a Shadow Minister told me – referencing Harold Wilson’s decision as Labour PM to call an Election in October 1974 in which he secured a slender overall majority of just three seats.
One possible contender is Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt. Or, as she is now known globally, The Lady With The Sword, after her Amazonian performance as bearer of the Sword of State at the Coronation
‘Keir would probably wait a bit longer, probably a year. Pump a lot of money into the NHS, whack up the minimum wage, then go back to the country.’
To some Shadow Ministers, the idea of a slender majority is a more worrying prospect than coalition government. One confided to me that they would ‘rather be in a coalition with the Lib Dems’ than have a situation where Corbynista Labour MP John McDonnell and the Socialist Campaign Group ‘get to hold the balance of power’.
Meanwhile, others are also questioning whether Starmer would be the best man to lead Labour into any subsequent contest if he comes up short in the next Election.
‘At that moment, the Wes factor comes into play,’ one Labour MP told me – referring to the popular Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting. ‘Wes has that star quality Keir lacks. And if Keir can’t win an overall majority with the Tories in the state they’re in, when is he going to win? People will start thinking about a change.’
But another Shadow Minister rubbishes the idea. ‘If Keir gets us into power, he’s safe. When he took over as leader, everyone thought it would take us at least ten years to get back into government. They’ll just be grateful he got us there, even if it is a bit messy.’
For Conservative MPs, the prospect of a hung Parliament is starting to reshape their view of the future leadership of their own party.
Among Tory backbenchers, the mood has become fatalistic. Before the local elections, the narrowing of the polls gave them cause for hope. Now it has been almost completely extinguished.
‘We’re finished,’ one Red Waller told me. ‘There’s no way we can win from here. Watch. Over the next couple of months you’ll see a large number of my colleagues announcing they’re not standing again.’ But those who remain are beginning to turn their thoughts to Opposition. And, in particular, the identity of Rishi Sunak’s successor.
Until last week, the assumption was that defeat would see the Conservative Party descend into civil war. A vicious period of score-settling would see the various Tory factions enacting vengeance for the crimes – real and imagined – committed during their decade and a half of power.
‘I’m going to sit back and watch Suella [Braverman] and Kemi [Badenoch] fight it out,’ one Cabinet Minister told me. ‘Then we’ll see if there’s anything left of the party that’s worth saving.’
But some Tory MPs are considering that a Labour-led coalition government – especially one relying on the creation of some unholy pacts with the Lib Dems, SNP or a Corbynite rump – could present an opportunity for change.
If this is the case, Starmer would probably have to rely on a so-called Confidence and Supply deal similar to the one that saw the DUP supporting Theresa May after her disastrous 2017 election showing
‘If Starmer gets a decent majority, we’ll implode,’ one Tory told me. ‘But if it’s a hung Parliament, and maybe another Election in 2025, we might just come to our senses. It’ll certainly mean we take a more serious look at who leads us.’
Braverman and Badenoch are both popular with the Tory grassroots, and currently viewed as frontrunners. But the prospect of a second General Election in such a short pace of time is concentrating Conservative minds.
One possible contender is Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt.
Or, as she is now known globally, The Lady With The Sword, after her Amazonian performance as bearer of the Sword of State at the Coronation.
‘The British people know who Penny is now,’ one admirer told me. ‘And if you look at how she did in the last leadership election, she came from nowhere to give Rishi a run for his money.
‘She’s not a populist, but if the party decides it wants someone serious who could potentially take over as Prime Minister, she’s up there.’
Another of the ‘serious’ candidates under consideration is Foreign Secretary James Cleverly. From the Right of the party, he came out for Boris Johnson when the former Tory leader was flirting with the idea of making a dramatic return last October.
But he’s credited with patiently rebuilding relations with Britain’s international partners in the wake of Brexit, and was influential in the negotiation of the Windsor Agreement between the UK and the EU.
A ministerial colleague told me: ‘James is one of the few people who is popular with all wings of the party. He’s close to Boris but he’s trusted by Rishi.
‘If people are looking for someone to pull everyone together after the Election, he’s in contention.’
There’s still a way to go before then. Sunak’s patient delivery of his five priorities could miraculously transform his political fortunes. Sir Keir Starmer could suddenly find a way of discovering, then channelling, his inner Tony Blair. Sir Ed Davey might decide to take a gamble on another spin of the coalition wheel.
But after the local election results, a 2025 General Election is now a very real prospect.
Another one? Yes Brenda, I’m afraid so.
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