ROSA PRINCE: It's too early to write off Theresa May
PUBLISHED: 15:00 17 August 2018
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The embattled prime minister's biographer looks back over the last year to assess prospects for the futures of May, her party and her country.
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“Nothing has changed; nothing has changed.” With those words, in May 2017, Theresa May doomed the Conservatives’ majority in the House of Commons and came close to throwing away her premiership less than a year into the job.
She was talking about the party’s screeching U-turn on social care for the elderly, but so palpably untrue was her statement that it came to encapsulate the Tories’ loss of control over last year’s general election campaign and a sense that the prime minister was taking the electorate for mugs.
Just over a year later, and the same words could sum up May’s time in office ever since that devastating election outcome: nothing has changed. Theresa May clings to power largely because her warring party is so divided over Europe they can not agree on a successor, while the Labour party is too busy tearing itself apart to pose a credible threat.
And so, for all the ups and downs of one of the most tumultuous years in a new era of uncertainty and upheaval, the political arithmetic remains the same: for now, at least, May is going nowhere.
At times over the last 12 months it has seemed impossible she would still be in post at the tail end of 2018. Last summer was her most perilous period. For a few hours after the result of the general election she need not have called and which she would soon bitterly regret, it seemed she would not survive.
Having proved wildly popular in her first 10 months in office, the public saw through the naked attempt to shore up her majority, for all her protestations that she needed a mandate to carry out Brexit.
For a while it was touch and go whether she would make it through the parliamentary recess. But without a credible alternative candidate to coalesce around, the plotters could do little more than ping WhatsApp messages to each other from their deckchairs and mutter late into the night over the chilled rosé.
Matters did not settle down in the autumn – conference season – when May was first undermined by her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, in an article repudiating her Brexit vision, then suffered the humiliation of delivering the most disastrous speech in modern political history: interrupted by a protester, a ticklish throat and, finally, the set falling apart around her.
Since then, the prime minister has suffered a relentless series of upheavals: the loss of her cabinet at a rate of one every six weeks to various scandals and resentments; knife-edge Commons votes over Brexit; seemingly doomed European negotiations; that awful Trump visit.
By the time of her second anniversary in office, in mid-July, it would have been understandable if she had thrown up her hands and quit, leaving someone else to clean up the mess. Yet for all the difficulties, May’s mood is said to be surprisingly upbeat as she enjoys her annual walking holidays in the Swiss Alps.
Indeed, compared to the other prime ministers whose troubled tenures hers is often likened to, John Major and Gordon Brown, she seems positively jolly.
For while May lacks the sunny disposition of David Cameron or the relentless positivity of Tony Blair, being a far quieter, even shy, character, she is not saddled with the brooding resentment of Brown, or the defensiveness of Major. Unlike most politicians, she does not feel the need to be loved, by either colleagues or the wider public, so is not hurt or angry at the absence of the adoration others crave.
Indifferent to popularity, she has never cultivated a wide social circle. She had few friends at school and while she discovered more like-minded pals at Oxford, those she does have are kept at arm’s length and treated with a degree of formality that precludes true intimacy.
Since her marriage and the death of her parents, events which occurred within the space of three years and before she was 25, the only person she has truly needed is her husband, Philip.
These days, rather than the love of the wider world she craves its respect and, above all, a recognition that she is performing at her best and doing her duty. The importance of public service was instilled in her at a young age by her vicar father. And the best way to for her to serve, she believes, is by working as hard as she can to arrive at the best possible outcome for the country and her party.
On a practical level, that means a life of grind. She works late into the night, every night, reading each civil service briefing, discussing all the options with officials and colleagues, worrying away at every political problem. Gone are the days of the ‘essay crisis’ premiership of Cameron; Number 10 is now a serious place of intense hard work.
Some have questioned why she would want to remain at Number 10 given the headaches involved and the general unpleasantness of life at the top of politics in the current era. For May, the reason is simple: she has been tasked with delivering Brexit and like the good former grammar school girl she is, she will see it through to the end.
It was the mandate she believes she was set on becoming prime minister when Cameron quit his post in the aftermath of the referendum. Any suggestion she would jump ship before the divorce is delivered is plain wrong.
Of course, the timing of her departure may not be in her gift. The current turmoil in the party means another tricky conference season and a challenging autumn – when the Brexit negotiations enter a do-or-die phase – lie ahead. If she gets through to the end of the year and beyond, will she remain past March 2019, when the decree absolute is due to land on the doormat? She is said to want to outlast Brown, who managed just under three years in office. That would take her through to next spring.
After that, the clock will be ticking. Given how disastrously May performed last time out, the Conservatives are most unlikely to give her another opportunity to lead them into an election.
And with the next one due in 2022, they will want her successor to have plenty of time to bed in. By the spring of 2019, May will be 62, and, for all she makes light of it, it should always be remembered that as a diabetic the pressure on her to maintain her health while operating at the highest level will be another factor in her decision-making when it comes to the timing of her departure.
But for all that it might make sense, both for May personally and her party, for her to be gone by this time next year, there seems no sign the Conservatives are any closer to resolving the prisoner’s dilemma they appear caught up in. To win a leadership election, candidates must first be among just two nominated by their fellow MPs, then emerge victorious in a ballot of party members.
Despite – or perhaps because – of the self-inflicted furore surrounding Johnson in the wake of his burka comments – which compared Muslim women who cover their faces to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” – Johnson remains wildly popular with the Tory grassroots. The bookies now put him as favourite to succeed May. But even if he were not loathed by many of his peers, who deplore his addiction to self-publicity, MPs are smart enough to see how divisive he is with the wider electorate. Many are grimly determined to keep him off a leadership ballot, making his path to power far from assured.
Likewise, uber-Leaver Jacob Rees-Mogg would struggle to make the cut, given the majority of Remain supporters in the parliamentary party, although he would probably do well with members if he did.
Figures such as Jeremy Hunt and, increasingly, Sajid Javid, are respected in parliament but lack popular appeal among members. Michael Gove’s day seems to be done, as does Amber Rudd’s – she was facing an epic battle to retain her seat even before she became tarnished goods after resigning over the Windrush scandal.
So as long as all the potential candidates to replace May are unacceptable to a sizeable chunk of the party, it is stuck with her. And while she believes it is her duty, for the good of the party as much as the country, to stay in post until someone credible emerges, she may well end up remaining in office into 2020 and beyond.
This scenario would be less likely if Labour managed to pull itself out of the unseemly morass of its own making over anti-Semitism and began to look like a viable opposition party. Nothing would focus the mind more for Conservative backbenchers than the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn striding into Downing Street.
And so it could well be that prime minister Hunt is in office this time next year. Or, if the 2010s are the decade of the political outsider – see the rise of Donald Trump and Corbyn – then it’s not impossible for Rees-Mogg to make it to Number 10. And don’t bet against Javid becoming Britain’s first Muslim leader.
But if nothing changes – and for more than a year now, for all that it has seemed as if we are trapped on a particularly precarious and rickety political roller coaster, really nothing much has changed – it will be Theresa May directing the country’s fortunes from her Swiss chalet in the summer of 2019.
• Rosa Prince is the author of Theresa May: the Enigmatic Prime Minister
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