There’s no point in writing a blog unless one’s prepared to get egg on one’s face. I have mostly steered clear of predictions, especially those that may be quickly disproved, but this week I’ll stick my neck out. This is not exactly a prediction – more a statement that most people will find absurd: Theresa May could still be Prime Minister in five years’ time, or more.
We are being told (again) by febrile, anonymous back-benchers that her time is up. Only a matter of weeks and she’ll be gone. The Chequers plan is dead. Theresa May has no credibility or authority. She’ll be out by Christmas. Those with only moderate memories will recall that exactly the same things were said after the election debacle last year. Then it was also going to be weeks, not months. Definitely by Christmas. No doubt about it. Yet here she still is, the sharks hovering but keeping their distance.
The possibility that Theresa May could be around for a lot longer than anyone thinks depends on three assumptions, all of which are highly doubtful, but none impossible.
The first is that the Chequers deal will prove not to be dead. Its advantage is that, even if everyone hates it, it is the only game in town. The fact that it is disliked equally by all sides is also an advantage. If it should become apparent, which it may, that the choice is between Chequers (or some close variant of it) and a no-deal exit, a lot of MPs may start blinking. Which bloc of Conservative MPs would like to take ownership of a no-deal exit? Would Labour MPs want to be complicit in such an outcome? When push finally comes to shove, a Commons majority for Chequers is not impossible, whatever anyone is saying now.
Of course, the attitude of the EU and its member states is equally a determining factor. No one, except Liam Fox, should have been surprised by the EU’s systematic attempt to punish the UK for Brexit. The messages from around the EU remain unremittingly hostile. But everyone has a bottom line. Does the EU really want to precipitate a no-deal exit? If not, it must surely be aware that, while Chequers may yet fail to get UK parliamentary approval, any significant unravelling of it carries even greater risks.
There is therefore brinkmanship on both sides of the Channel, but it is converging on a small cluster of negotiating points. Minds are being concentrated. And the question, for EU politicians as well as for British ones, is the same: who wants to carry the can for a no-deal exit?
The second assumption is that, while Conservative MPs think they have the freedom to dispose of Theresa May at their leisure, they may find that it isn’t that easy. Do they want to tear the party apart over Brexit, to risk an indefinite period out of power, to provoke a split in the party, and possibly to bring about its extinction? The fact that the question needs to be asked shows how much things have changed since EU-mania first seized the party’s right wing.
The Conservative Party has been more single-mindedly committed to power than to anything else during its long history. Which means it has necessarily been committed to unity, since divided parties are an electoral liability. If, despite all current evidence to the contrary, that instinct still holds good when it most matters, then Conservative MPs, from all shades of opinion within the party, will think twice about ditching Theresa May.
No one could have more determinedly stuck to the dead centre of the Brexit debate than the Prime Minister. She has never backtracked from the fact that she was a Remainer; never been pushed into saying that Brexit was the better option. But nor has she deviated one inch from attempting to deliver the referendum result. The fact that both sides of her party assail her equally is proof of her impartiality. She has made herself virtually neutral on all the principles of the argument, interested only in their practicality.
So what are Conservative MPs going to do? If they chuck her out, they will not end up with a committed Remainer as leader. If they choose a prominent Brexiteer, it is hard to see how a schism can be avoided, especially if that candidate comes with a hard-right agenda. Yet if they choose a compromise candidate, another centrist, another pragmatic ex-Remainer, how will that improve matters? That person will be in exactly the same predicament. As will the party.
This leaves the third assumption: that if Theresa May (improbably) gets through the first two hoops, she will then defeat Jeremy Corbyn at the next election. If she does get through those hoops, I will feel more confident about the third assumption. Despite the current momentum behind Corbyn’s Labour Party, and despite the need for the Conservatives to address a range of urgent socio-economic issues at the next election, and preferably well before it, Theresa May should have two big things in her favour.
First, I think she is far closer to the temperament and attitudes of the average British voter than Jeremy Corbyn. Last time, voting for Corbyn offered the luxury of a protest vote with no apparent risk that he would win. Not next time.
Second – and this is a cliché, but a relevant one – we Brits do like to see fair play. For two years, we have watched our Prime Minister (a transparently decent woman, whatever else one thinks of her) being kicked around the park by pretty much the whole world. By both wings of her own party. By the Labour Party. By the LibDems. By the entire Press. And, directly or by innuendo, by the whole nomenklatura of the EU. Together they have kicked her to the ground, and then kicked her on the ground. I don’t think the British people will have liked this.
If, in the end, the kicking has been successful, the Chequers deal collapses and we are left, a few months before the exit date, with a complete shambles, then Theresa May will have failed and she will almost certainly have to go. But if, against all the odds and despite all the kicking, she does secure a deal with the EU and does get it through Parliament, her personal position will be transformed. And it should create the possibility of a substantial electoral dividend.
In these circumstances, Theresa May’s promise of strong and stable government, derided at the time and since, will, astonishingly, have been delivered. She will almost certainly be more popular than her party – something else that Conservative MPs might like to ponder. It could be that, just at the time that Theresa May would appear to have outlived her usefulness, the party can’t afford to be without her.
These are three huge assumptions. But the realisation of each of them makes the achievement of the next one easier. So no, it is not impossible that Theresa May could still be Prime Minister in five years’ time.