Donald Trump has achieved the impossible: he has made Theresa May’s operation look strong and stable. While Trump lurches from one daily crisis to the next, a Downing Street ship that seemed to be heading for the rocks only a few weeks ago has been stabilised by a new team.
I had never seen such a dysfunctional government as May’s after the June election. But Trump has lived up to his name and beaten it. I’m currently watching the latest series of House of Cards, in which Kevin Spacey’s chillingly ruthless US President uses every trick, legal or otherwise, to cling on to power.
It’s great fun but somehow less potent now that we have a real life Trump; life has overtaken art. Anthony Scaramucci, the White House communications director for 10 days, spoke approvingly of “front-stabbing” as he knifed chief of staff Reince Priebus – only to find himself frontstabbed by Priebus’s successor John Kelly.
To see such a Shakespearean bloodbath in a governing administration, as opposed to Michael Gove’s assassination of Boris Johnson in the heat of a party leadership battle, is incredible.
Even Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, the two all-powerful May aides sacked after the election debacle, went in for back-stabbing rather than front-stabbing, according to their victims – Cabinet ministers included. There are some parallels between May and Trump.
Both have lost about 12 key aides in a few months – including two joint chiefs of staff (May), a chief of staff and deputy (Trump), a communications director and press secretary.
Despite nominally holding power, both must wonder how on earth they will get their measures through both houses of their legislature. But of course there are differences too. Trump was a good campaigner – even if he has turned into an incompetent governor and seems to have encouraged the infighting.
May was such a terrible campaigner that her party will not allow her to lead it into another election. It looked like her government would be equally shambolic. But something has changed in the past two weeks. A dysfunctional No 10 operation after the election is now functioning normally. Policies have been rolled out on issues including air quality, leasehold reform, transgender rights and mental health.
Crucially, ministers have shown there is more to life than Brexit (even though the very real Cabinet tensions over EU negotiations shared the headlines with the policy announcements). Ministers have been given their head, after being kept firmly in their box during the dictatorial Timothy-Hill regime. Statements still have to be cleared with Downing Street to prevent the chaos seen at the White House.
But, as one insider told me: “The default option is now to say yes to ministers rather than no.” By accident rather than design, May has ended up with a better way of governing. Ministers who predicted that May could “not survive without Nick and Fi” have been proved wrong.
The huge vacuum has been filled by Gavin Barwell, the new chief of staff; Damian Green, May’s unofficial deputy and Cabinet fixer, and Robbie Gibb, the new director of communications – while Gavin Williamson, the Government Chief Whip, mounted a strong operation to head off a coup.
May was resilient, all the more remarkable given her exhaustion after the election. She fully intends to see Brexit through, staying on until March 2019 at the very least. There is now a good chance that Conservative MPs will let her, having looked at the alternatives on offer and seen the clock ticking on the negotiations. Does May’s recovery give Trump any grounds for hope? A lot will depend on Kelly, the new chief of staff. The retired general is widely respected, but will he really be allowed to rein in members of Trump’s own family?
I doubt it. At the start of his presidency, I discounted the speculation that he would never last his four-year term. Now I don’t think he will. The links between his election campaign and Russia, and his attacks on the special counsel Robert Mueller who is investigating them, will probably get him.
I suspect Trump will jump before he is pushed or impeached. On Twitter (of course), he will blame it all on Washington’s “deep state” establishment and the fake news of the liberal media.
While adding that it has been a “great presidency”. Could May, who would clock up almost three years in Downing Street if she “does Brexit”, serve longer as PM than Trump does as President after his turbulent first six months? I should have put money on that on 9 June.