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Over dinner Tories sharpen the knives

PA Wire/PA Images - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Dinner table debate with Tory voters offers fascinating food for thought…

Desperate, dangerous, divisive, devious, deluded, degrading. Just some D-words that sprang up as Theresa May struggles to save her political skin via a ‘deal’ with Northern Ireland’s bastion of bigotry, the DUP.

More important, they’re not just words springing from my lips as a left of centre, pro-Remain liberal; they’re the words of many Tory friends over a post-election dinner party that veered between inquest and candid confessional.

Several of the ten Tories vowed not to vote for the Conservatives as long as the party remains in power courtesy of the DUP, with its regressive stance on gay rights and single sex marriage, abortion, creationism and a Trumpian take on climate change.

The unprecedented delay to the Queen’s Speech triggered by the horse-trading with the DUP’s notoriously hard-bargaining negotiators only added to those moral misgivings.

At the same time, these fair-minded Tory friends owned up to ‘severe queasiness’ over how Theresa May’s election campaign and her right wing Tory newspaper cheerleaders made such play of Jeremy Corbyn’s past IRA links; but are now only too willing to cling for survival to a party whose history is closely intertwined with similarly murderous Loyalist terrorists.

And that’s without the potentially-explosive threat to the marooned power-sharing peace legacy in Northern Ireland. How, as my New European colleague Alastair Campbell (with his up-close and personal insight into that historic agreement) has passionately and pertinently questioned, can a Westminster government fulfil its neutral, honest broker role enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement when it’s propped up by the DUP?

The only honest answer, according to most of my dining companions? It can’t. Not in terms of commanding cross-community, cross-party credibility anyway. To all but the most blinkered Tory loyalist, the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement is a coalition in all but name. Or, as I said on Sky News, it sounds more like an ad for my Tesco online shopping order.

So, who knew Theresa May, the vicar’s dutiful daughter, is also a prophetess? She went into the general election hubristically prophesying a ‘Coalition of Chaos’ unless she was gifted a resounding victory and, by God, she’s emerged from it humiliated and creating that prophetic ‘Coalition of Chaos’ all of her own making.

At a stroke, she’s also re-toxified the Tory party; quite a feat for the woman who first registered a big impression in the public mind in 2002 by warning that the Conservative Party was perceived as the ‘Nasty Party’. Back then it was her party conference speech definition of why the Tories had lost two successive general elections. Now the big question is whether her premiership can even survive through to party conference in October.

And, while there was unquestionably much personal animus attached to George Osborne’s ‘dead woman walking’ rapier thrust, the Chancellor she unceremoniously sacked on becoming prime minister was only speaking truth to hugely diminished power.

Among those disillusioned dinner party Tory friends, disgusted by the prospect of DUP dependency, D-day (okay, another D-word) can only come through Theresa May’s prime ministerial demise (OK, yet another one!). Their only real question: How soon?

Six weeks, six months, a year, eighteen months? None of them thought Theresa May could survive longer than the latter and all of them derided her claim that she’s planning on serving a full five-year term.

It was a mood compounded by their view of her Downing Street performance before the cameras when contrition appeared in short supply and the message seemed to be ‘business as usual’, delivered in the same robotic style that helped deliver humiliation at the ballot box. ‘Delusional’ was the D-word in plentiful supply among my dining companions.

The prime minister’s mea culpa at the 1922 Committee garnered little sympathy. She owes the whole country an apology for ‘blowing’ £120m of public funds on an ‘election fiasco’ was the overriding reaction.

Significantly, even the couple of Hard Brexiteers among the gathering swung behind the majority view that Soft Brexit is now the only realistic option for the UK.

One, a 48-year-old accountant confided: ‘I was very much a Leaver in the referendum, but I’m not even sure I’d vote the same way again. My student son voted Remain and voted Labour last week, the first general election where he’s been eligible. But we’re definitely united on one thing…going into the Brexit negotiations with a discredited prime minister and a government in limbo is barmy.’

Another, a retired bank manager in his mid-60s, even begrudgingly came round to my argument that the Lib Dem position on a second referendum before Brexit becomes irrevocable ‘now starts to make sense’. OK, only a single certain convert for me so far, but an acceptance that a Second Referendum wouldn’t be a betrayal of June 23 last year but the opportunity to reaffirm or reject it. ‘We’ve got to accept that June 8 this year has thrown everything up in the air….especially given the big turnout of young pro-Remain voters,’ my ‘convert’ acknowledged.

Only a couple disagreed with the argument that the momentum is now with Jeremy Corbyn and that if a general election is forced in the short term, then the Labour leader would be almost certain to win. Especially versus Theresa May.

Interestingly, when the talk turned to May’s successor, there was little enthusiasm for Boris Johnson, David Davis, Amber Rudd or Cabinet ‘comeback kid’ Michael Gove. Instead there was overwhelming support for Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader who inspired the party’s revival there.

To a man and a woman round that dinner table, there was genuine respect for Davidson’s readiness to round on May over the dangers of courting the DUP and also her determination to press the cause of a Soft Brexit.

Unfazed by the fact that Davidson doesn’t currently occupy a Westminster seat, the general consensus was that she represents the best bet for the party’s future and finding her a safe seat either side of the border would hardly constitute a problem.

One diner, a successful businesswoman in her late 30s, contended: ‘When you look at the unimpressive alternatives, Ruth Davidson stands out like a beacon of principled modernity, media appeal and charisma—but without the buffoonery handicap that goes with Boris.

‘I accept that there would be a public opinion risk in the Tory party appointing another leader and unelected prime minister, but Ruth Davidson is probably the one best equipped to overcome that hurdle. And, while there may be no great public appetite for another general election in the immediate future, it can’t be too far away and it would be better to have Ruth Davidson in place sooner rather than later ahead of it. If we don’t want Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister, then she’s the best antidote available.’

The resounding murmur of agreement around that table of middle-class Tories spoke volumes. And if they are anything to go by, Ruth Davidson is the Tory with momentum on her side. That’s without the capital M, of course.

Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, author and former editor of the Sunday Mirror

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