Poor Amber Rudd was a lamb to the slaughter at the leaders’ debate last night. Fronting up to take this hospital pass whilst her supposedly all conquering leader was somehow “too busy talking to voters” at that time of night, was probably not what the Home Secretary had in mind to be doing following the passing of her father on Monday. Clearly “compassionate Conservatism” does not stretch to mourning members of the PM’s front bench when it comes to taking one for the Team (Theresa).
Rudd must have rued that the “personality cult” (in George Osborne’s embittered but accurate words) surrounding the rebranding of the Conservative party to “Theresa May’s Team” does not stretch to the eponymous hero leading by example and taking the fight to her rivals in public forum.
Her public hanging was made all the more excruciating by the fact that her panel of executioners were a rabble of some of the feeblest and hopelessly lightweight leaders you could ever wish to get stuck into. Going into bat without a box is seemingly still a perilous exercise even when faced with projectiles lobbed at powderpuff velocity.
In the election that she supposedly couldn’t lose, this campaign is unravelling rapidly for Theresa May. Ever since the shambles of her manifesto launch on 18 May, she has seen the Tories’ lead in the polls decimated from 20 odd points to single figures. Regardless of one’s views as to the reliability of opinion polls, momentum is running against Mrs May at a rate of knots.
Having made this election a straight fight between her credentials as a leader and Jeremy Corbyn’s, how on earth did her political radar come to the opinion that dodging last night’s debate was a positive act of reinforcing the “strong and stable” mantra? Even Jezza, seemingly invigorated by his time on the stump and notwithstanding his radio balls-up on childcare costs, threw down the mantle last minute and put those leadership credentials on the line. But May didn’t rise to the challenge. A challenge which she says she routinely puts to the sword every week at PMQs. So what was the problem? Voters don’t watch PMQs Theresa. They do watch national television though. Doh.
Gleeful calls of Mrs May’s cowardice, weakness, contempt and arrogance abounded with zero danger of such character assassinations being rebuffed with any authority in absentia. Ruddy toiled doggedly with her defence of her boss’s “record of delivery”, but she was pushing water uphill with a rake. What record of delivery? In nearly 11 months of office, Theresa May has achieved little more than nine policy U-turns (yes, nine) and some provocative sabre rattling at the EU. A model of strength and stability she is not. She just tells us that she is.
When Geoffrey Howe resigned from Margaret Thatcher’s government in November 1990, his Commons resignation speech said: “The truth is that, in many aspects of politics, style and substance complement each other. Very often, they are two sides of the same coin.” That devastating speech precipitated Thatcher’s downfall later that month as the substance of Thatcher’s policies and her style of leadership clashed with irresistible force.
On the evidence of the last 11 months and in particular the last few weeks of this pitiful election campaign, Theresa May is a leader of questionable substance and very little style. Even the hardly inspiring vision of leadership that purports her to be a “safe pair of hands” is now open to challenge.
With one week to go until “the only poll that matters”, Mrs May looks vulnerable and has shot her last bolt. Having made herself the trump card in the Tories’ election hand, it now appears that she has neither the depth of substance nor style of personality to wrestle momentum back.
She will be hoping that the “quiet of the polling booth” focuses wavering voters’ minds and she will probably still win, but her leadership is rudderless. Just ask Amber.