May needs to slap down rivals without fuelling Tory fury

Chris Moncrieff

Will this be remembered as the Year of the Swan for the Conservative Party – calm and majestic for the public view above the waterline, and furious paddling beneath it?

That is how I expect the Tory conference to proceed in Manchester as the week progresses. Only a year ago, the Tories were laughing about the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour Party leader, assuming they would wipe the floor with Labour under his leadership.

How wrong they were! Now, Corbyn is even more securely installed in his job than Theresa May is in hers.

At Manchester, the Conservatives are having, like the proverbial swan, to present a united front to the nation, while behind the scenes, and out of view, the political blood-shedding will be going on, possibly doing irreparable damage through self-inflicted wounds.

The row over the conduct of the Brexit negotiations is almost as savage within the Tory Party as is the criticism of it by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. And the very quality of May’s leadership is itself now open to very serious questioning, particularly her ill-conceived and reckless decision to hold a general election earlier this year.

Now, it is her plain, but tricky job to slap down those aspirants for her post without creating yet more waves of fury from the alarmingly growing number of malcontents in the Conservative ranks.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the Chancellor Philip Hammond are clearly at daggers drawn - and that row shows no signs of ending.

And whatever we are told to the contrary, the Cabinet is plainly in a state of turmoil, which not only leads to problems in the Conservative Party, but, far more seriously, to bad Government.

Theresa May must use this conference to steady the dangerously rocking boat, and do it with as little arrogance as she can muster.

She should read, mark and learn Harold Wilson’s famous remark when he heard about a backbench plot to overthrow him. He said: “I know what is going on. I am going on.” That must be her mantra if she is to survive.

Is Ukip, once the great white hope of the Brexiteers, now dying on its feet? The party has just elected Henry Bolton as its fourth leader in the space of a year - a fact which itself demonstrates the fragility of a movement that now appears to be hanging on to life by its very fingertips.

One supporter was not alone in being particularly pessimistic about its future. He tweeted: “The party will just go to sleep and not wake up again.”

The seven candidates who aspired to the leadership were a motley bunch of unknowns, some of them eccentrics and others even extremists. Ukip has done moderately well in the European Parliament, but has been a dismal failure at Westminster, where it really counts.

They once had a grand total of two (both ex-Tories) MPs in the Commons: One of them lost his seat and the other defected.

As their conference proceeds in Torquay, one gets the feeling they are simply playing at politics, with their future now firmly behind them.

They may have contributed to the outcome of the Brexit referendum last year - but now, what is the point of them, except to stand on the sidelines and shout abuse at their opponents?

Well, there are more than enough people already doing that, so why doesn’t the party simply curl up and fall into that endless sleep?

They have had their day...

How is it possible that the estimate for repairing Big Ben has doubled, almost overnight, to £61 million? Some searching questions need to be asked as to how the original estimate was so wrong. It was apparently conducted by so-called experts - who appeared to be miles out from the real cost - or is this yet another attempt to fleece the taxpayer? That wouldn’t surprise me.

It now appears the reglazing of the clock faces is much more complex than originally thought, as well as other major repair work. You might have expected these so-called experts to have spotted these things. After all, they are not just minor adjustments.

And you can take it from me that this won’t be anywhere near the end of the story. By the time Big Ben is bonging again, the cost will at least have doubled.

And that’s a conservative estimate. So get ready to dig even deeper in your pockets.

Tory MP James Cleverly is at least straightforward enough to say publicly: “I’d love to be Prime Minister”, while others, whom you know are gagging for it, simply deny that is their objective in life.

Yet, when the opportunity does actually arise, you are in severe danger of being knocked over in the rush.

Boris Johnson may be shy about admitting his true intentions, but it is difficult to judge his frequent outbursts as anything other than a claim for the top job.

And I see efforts are being made to push Jacob Rees-Mogg into Number 10. He is not exactly the get-up-and-go character you might expect the Tories to be looking for, but it is astonishing how the job can so often make the man (or woman), rather than the other way round.

There are fears the current Conservative conference will degenerate into little more than a vulgar battleground for those who want to supplant Theresa May.

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