Can the Tories get back to the future? Not under Theresa May

Just as trauma is said to turn hair grey overnight, the election has abruptly aged the Conservative party. Theresa May and her ministers are not physically altered, but their whole enterprise feels more decrepit than it did just a month ago.

This partly reflects exposure of the Tories’ extraordinary reliance on older voters. Labour finished the campaign ahead with every age cohort under 50, and won among under-40s by a country mile. In demographic terms, May’s party has a stronger purchase on the past than the future.

But there is also a sudden intellectual haggardness to the May project. On her accession last year, the prime minister acted as if the European referendum had reset the political clocks. The ruthlessness with which May dismantled the Cameron regime, sacking its officers and shredding its policies, indicated her belief that 23 June 2016 was day one of a revolutionary Brexit calendar.

But the public did not forget that the Conservatives have been in power for seven years. Some Tory MPs hardly count the first five, believing them contaminated by coalition with Liberal Democrats. But that hankering for ideological purity was one obstacle to understanding quite how many voters feel ground down by austerity and demoralised by visible decay of the public realm.

If the point was not adequately made by the loss of a parliamentary majority, it was driven home by the Grenfell Tower fire and its harrowing aftermath. May is on the hook for the full legacy of Tory neglect. She is discovering, as Gordon Brown did when taking over from Tony Blair, that it is hard to signal a clean break from a government in which you have served at the highest level.

May’s fate also resembles Brown’s in the speed with which a reputation for competence was lost and the precipitous decline from respect to ridicule that followed. Her stiff reserve, once positively interpreted as seriousness of purpose, has become a caricature of icy insensitivity.

Whether that is a fair judgment has little bearing on May’s future, since most Tory MPs have decided that her good name is irretrievably lost. The succession race has not formally begun, but the limbering up is well under way.

May remains in office for now because rival factions in her party have their various reasons for keeping her there. All recognise that there is no public appetite for a self-indulgent contest that would necessarily halt the business of government. All worry, too, that a mishandled transition might trigger some chain reaction of events resulting in another general election and Jeremy Corbyn seizing Downing Street.

Radical Brexiteers are wary of new leadership for fear of reopening avenues of European integration that they hoped the election would seal forever. Philip Hammond’s speech at the Mansion House today, underlining the need for transitional arrangements to avoid sudden rupture, will heighten suspicion that the scattered forces of remain are mustering once more.

Brexit-softening Tory moderates have the opposite concern: leadership bids pitched at the party faithful would ignore the anxiety of voters who abandoned May precisely because of her uncompromising, Ukip-infused rhetoric on all things European.