Voices

We’ll accept a temporary PM, but only on these terms

David Lidington has been named as a likely replacement for May
(AFP/Getty)

Even now, she might cling on. In this One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest rewrite, where Nurse Ratched is the craziest inmate, nothing is impossible. But if a dollop of sanity infiltrates the madness, and the cabinet acts with merciful speed, I offer this helpful suggestion.

Anyone prepared to accept the job must first sign this declaration (in their own blood if they prefer it to ink). “I promise to serve for 12 months. On the day the year elapses, I will resign and be ineligible for the leadership election that follows.”

Every potential candidate for any Michael Howard-style coronation would tell you that the last thing they want is to be PM, and that they’d only take the job with the utmost reluctance from a sense of duty to serve in an emergency. Alright then, be it Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, David Lidington, or whoever, let them prove it.

One reason behind that proposal is that I don’t think I could survive watching Gove parade the lack of personal ambition by which he’s so tragically riven again. Seven seconds of the Aberdonian Uriah Heep act, staring ever so ’umbly into a lens and regretting that events have propelled him into No 10, would bang the cocktail hour gong. Equal measures of antifreeze and bleach, with a twist of strychnine. Garnished with a Novichok olive.

There are less selfish reasons than that. Whoever takes over might want to flip the form book by acting in the national interest. We have all seen close up what happens when a PM acts in the interest of her party and her own career. Pretty viewing in no way has it been. The way to ensure that the next one does the opposite, is to free them from the survivalist motives that led May to become the ERG’s prisoner, by eradicating the craving for an indefinite Downing Street stay in advance.

The only one of the aforementioned candidates who might willingly sign the oath has a name known to very few: Lidington. If the Aylesbury MP walked up to you and rubbed his nose against yours, Eskimo fashion, you’d no more recognise him than I would. But there is a precedent for the least recognisable candidate succeeding a deranged Tory PM removed by her cabinet, in what some would call a coup and others an act of euthanasia.

In November 1990, despite having briefly held two great offices of state, John Major was barely known beyond Westminster. He beat Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd not in spite of his obscurity, but because of it. He was inoffensive and had no enemies. His dullness made him the ideal antidote to the draining psychodrama of a late Thatcher era defined by the pathological inability to listen and change course.

As for Gove, who has moved in the opposite direction from ultra to pragmatic soft Brexiteer, all that need be said about him can be distilled into three words: He is Gove

For Lidington, May’s “de facto deputy”, it’s trickier. Being a Remainer, this long-time Europe minister under David Cameron does have enemies. But from what little is gleanable, the enmity is purely ideological. Personally, he’s uniformly liked and respected. He is as close as the Tories have to a clean skin. And he reputedly has the most precious quality imaginable right now. He is said to be unambitious and indifferent to power. He might willingly sign my pledge.

The others would find it incredibly difficult to sign if they were in a Damascus interrogation cell with high voltage electrodes strapped to their genitals (though, oh my great aunt Ada, it wouldn’t half be fun watching them try).

We know enough about Hunt’s power lust from his lightning sprint from passionate Remainer to adamantine Leaver. Javid’s leadership repositioning, though it began from closer to In/Out ambivalence, has been barely less cynical. As for Gove, who has moved in the opposite direction from ultra to pragmatic soft Brexiteer, all that need be said about him can be distilled into three words: He is Gove.

But first, of course, comes the small matter of putting May out of our misery. It should never have come to this.

Her doctors and the Arthur Askey husband ought to have joined forces and done a Denis Thatcher on her months ago. One factor that makes type 1 diabetes even more dangerous is stress. It releases cortisol and makes controlling blood sugar harder. There are now fears for both her physical health (contingency plans have been made should she collapse at the dispatch box) and her psychological state. If she isn’t on the edge of a nervous breakdown, she can’t be far away.

On medical and humanitarian grounds as well as political, she needs pulling out of the ring immediately. Fingers crossed it happens at today’s cabinet meeting, where the only minister who will want to her stay will be the only one virtually guaranteed to follow her out of the door if she goes.

But so wickedly impaired has May’s judgment become that Chris Grayling would probably be her pick to take over. Tiberius chose Caligula as his heir because he was the only family member who could make him look good. Thankfully, British PMs don’t appoint their successors. In this case, a six-week leadership campaign is too deranged a thought for even these Tories to entertain, that will fall to the cabinet.

It would be awfully nice if just this once they postponed the internecine bloodletting for a while, and coalesced around the candidate best placed to dig us out of this hole rather than deeper into it. That self-evidently is the candidate who would most enthusiastically sign that oath. You needn’t have the first clue who Lidington is to hope that his hour, or year, is at hand.