Gordon Brown’s rudderless leadership in some ways was “saved” by the financial crisis. Brown was in the domestic doldrums, unable to command his party and present any sort of vision to the country. But the financial crisis gave the listless Prime Minister something to focus on which played exactly to his strengths in the minutiae of economic policy-making. Current Prime Minister Theresa May’s only real mission is Brexit and foreign affairs, and Russia’s attempt to murder a spy in Salisbury has helped boost May at a time when she was beginning to flag.
Her response to the attack by Russia plays to her experience on security matters and allows her to focus on an immediate crisis rather than face the far harder challenge of a domestic vision. She has been helped greatly by an extraordinarily ill-judged response from Jeremy Corbyn who has at various times this week appeared to sympathise with Russia, cast doubt on the security services’ analysis and even this morning give succour to conspiracy theories that it was the Russian mafia rather than the Government that carried out this terrible act. As if those two things are distinct from each other anyway.
Corbyn’s response has reopened schisms within Labour too, with the “moderates” furious that he seems unable to support the Government on this, and rumours abounding that Shadow Ministers will resign if the equivocation continues.
Another person who is having a “bad war” is Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson who has appeared out of his depth and almost childish with his “shut up and go away” comments directed at the Russian Government. If his is one leadership campaign dealt a blow this week, one which has gained momentum is that of Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chair, Tom Tugenhadt. Tugenhadt has put in a series of assured media and parliamentary performances which have drawn admiring looks from all sides of the political spectrum, and begged many to wonder why he remains on the backbenches rather than in the Cabinet.
Theresa May has decisively beaten Jeremy Corbyn this week in the battle for who is the better statesman. Whether this marks a turning point for her more widely however still remains to be seen. While short term crisis management is an area where a Prime Minister can shine, the problem is in the name, it is short term. It’s quite possible that in six months time this will have blown over and no one will remember the contrasting ways May and Corbyn approached Russia.
But whether it helps her in six months or not, it certainly helps her today, and for a Prime Minister often deemed to be living on borrowed time, succeeding day by day is the only way May can hope to keep the show on the road.