DAVID Davis could not have been clearer. It would be, he agreed, catastrophic if the Tory party held a leadership contest at this moment in time.
Meanwhile the Brexit Secretary’s equally ambitious rival, Boris Johnson, says he won’t stand until Britain has completed its exit from the European Union in 2019.
Yet, despite these unequivocal answers, it speaks volumes about the paralysis gripping the Conservative party – and therefore the Government – that the speculation persists. Every week sees talk of a new ‘unity’ candidate, with Chancellor Philip Hammond joining the Brexit and Foreign Secretaries in the fray after finally finding his voice over access to the single market.
If Tory MPs and ministers think they can continue with this self-indulgence, less than a month after Theresa May lost her Commons majority in a snap election, they don’t deserve to govern – even with the now agreed support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
They need to realise they’re in a mess of their own making. I, for one, warned – repeatedly – that an early election was flawed because Mrs May was going back on her word and risking her biggest strength – the benefit of the doubt.
That said, the Prime Minister’s share of the vote, and number of ballots, compared favourably with Margaret Thatcher and would have sufficed if it was not for Labour’s resurgence.
Assuming her watered-down Queen’s Speech is now backed on Thursday, the first key Commons test of this Parliament, it’s probably still in the national interest that she remains in post – Brexit can’t be put off until the Tories settle on a leader, a new Prime Minister would have even less of a mandate and there’s no guarantee a change at the top will lead to the emergence of a better qualified PM.
The Brexit Secretary? Though the York-born Cabinet minister, 68, is emblematic of those Tories working their way from the very bottom to the top, he’s a spiky individual who did, in fact, advise Mrs May to hold an election on June 8.
Not a fluent public speaker, as he discovered to his cost in the 2005 leadership contest, he resigned as shadow home secretary, and Haltemprice and Howden MP, in order to fight a vanity by-election to highlight the importance of civil liberties.
The Foreign Secretary? The former Mayor of London is not regarded as a details man and was flummoxed last Wednesday when Radio 4’s Eddie Mair asked about the Queen’s Speech.
Asked how the legislative programme would tackle “burning injustices” previously highlighted by Mrs May, he ummed and arghed before sighing ‘hang on a second’ on air. Never before has a senior Minister been so under-prepared for a two-minute interview.
The Chancellor? Though Mr Hammond delivered a thoughtful Mansion House speech in which he made the case for transitional arrangements after Britain leaves the EU, his record does not inspire confidence.
His first Budget in March unravelled over a proposed NI increase against the self-employed and he allowed himself, as Chancellor, to be sidelined during the election when Labour’s spending free-for-all needed to be challenged. Spreadsheet Phil? More like Pushover Phil.
The best on offer by some distance, it’s hardly an inspiring choice.
Compare these three with the occupants of the great offices of state when Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990 – John Major, Douglas Hurd and David Waddington were formidable figures.
Or when Mr Major lost the 1997 election – Ken Clarke, who says he’s never seen such political turbulence in his five-decade Parliamentary career, Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Howard were proven performers.
Or when David Cameron fell on his sword last year after losing the EU referendum – it could be argued that George Osborne, Philip Hammond and Theresa May were well-suited with their respective roles.
Where are the great leaders and statesmen of the future? Just as Mrs May promised on the steps of 10 Downing Street when she first became PM last July to reach out to those families ‘just about managing’, she now needs to do likewise for the sake of her party and her country.
She must not allow the work of government to grind to a halt. She needs to get the debate away from personalities and back onto policy. She should also not be afraid of Commons votes if it exposes Labour’s rank opportunism.
In the meantime, the person who is most deserving of the chance to become Prime Minister will be the person who can find a responsible way to give the nation a pay rise, and raise incomes, following the sustained squeezing of incomes in the public and private sectors.
The reason Jeremy Corbyn appealed to the masses, thereby denying the Tories a majority, is because sufficient people felt that the Government was no longer working for them.
This will determine the result of the next election, whenever it comes. Until a prospective premier can answer this conundrum, the Tories need to get on with governing before they self-destruct and leave the country in greater peril.