by Atul Hatwal
Tick tock, tick tock. That’s the sound of the clock running down on Theresa May’s Number 10 honeymoon.
New Prime Minister’s always enjoy a honeymoon with the press. It’s a time when personal idiosyncracies are viewed as signs of authenticity rather than awkward weirdness, mistakes are overlooked and the slightest success is a soaring triumph.
Four months into her premiership, May still enjoys the good favour of the media. But the High Court judgement on Brexit has brought the end of her honeymoon significantly closer.
The judges’ decision itself will be of negligible substantive impact.
The votes were always there on the floor of the House to force a vote on triggering Article 50.
When the government has a tiny majority, as with John Major’s premiership in the 1990s or with Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in the 1970s, the political agenda is driven by the legislature not the executive.
However, the ruling will have an impact on the perception of Theresa May among the media and shape how they report her tenure in office.
Judgement is an invaluable commodity for a politician.
She is currently perceived to have it. She navigated the treacherous shoals of the Home Office, positioned herself to take advantage of the referendum result – whatever it was going to be – and ascended to the top job.
Her stock is high.
But. There’s always a but.
Theresa May’s career is littered with flubs. Incidents where she has totally misjudged the situation. From the nasty party speech, which nearly ended her career in the front rank of Conservative politics to sanctioning the go-home vans that the Home Office had to scrap to the unintended elevation of grammar schools into a defining, flagship policy, already widely regarded within the parliamentary Conservative party as a mistake.
Nothing shatters the perception of good judgement like defeat. Flaws come to the fore, triumphs are dimmed. New threads become evident, running through all that’s gone wrong in the past.
Defeat for David Cameron in the referendum meant that all the positive press he accumulated, from winning the Tory leadership in 2005 to his general election victory last year, has been expunged.
His political epitaph is written: he is a chancer who ran out of luck, a man whose judgement was found wanting in the biggest test of all.
Clearly this High Court ruling is not anywhere near on the same scale, but it is a defeat.
Journalists might not be trained lawyers, but the legal commentary on the case is very clear: the government position was extremely weak. Risible, even.
That Theresa May thought this case was worth fighting will colour the reporting of her political judgement.
If she persists in taking this to the Supreme Court, as is very likely, and is beaten again, she will look worse.
The question journalists are already asking is if the case was that weak, why did she fight it? What scares her so much about parliamentary scrutiny?
A negative narrative can form about a PM very quickly, not least when there are dozens of disillusioned former Ministerial colleagues ready to feed it.
Accusations of secrecy and control freakery consume every premiership in the end. They are already rife in Westminster about this Prime Minister.
The nascent consensus among many of the lobby is that the skills which saw May excel at the Home Office are those which will see her struggle in Downing Street.
She doesn’t delegate or trust any but those closest to her. What prevented mistakes at the Home Office is a recipe for sclerosis in Number 10. Several government ministers have said as much to journalists who have repeated as much to each other and anyone else in the pub at the time.
The older lobby hands, those about in the mid-2000s, will be experiencing a strong bout of déjà vu. The parallels with Gordon Brown are evident. The similarity between Philip Hammond and Alistair Darling is almost too good to be true.
The tone of coverage about Theresa May remains positive. But behind the words on the screen and page, the writers aren’t quite so sure.
When phrases such as “Downing street bunker” start creeping into the copy, the game is almost up. When they become frequent, the negative narrative is set.
Today was the day this particular phrase was used for the first time in relation to Theresa May (or at least that’s what Google tells me).
Admittedly it was the Mirror, hardly a friend to Conservative governments. But this headline did not suddenly appear in a vacuum. It’s the expression of a wider journalistic conversation about Theresa May.
If and when the Prime Minister loses her appeal at the Supreme Court, expect to see it again, only this time in a broader range of publications.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut