Theresa May is a long way from winning over MPs – but her leadership is certainly more secure now
Boris Johnson’s showmanship merely points up the risk he represents, and, inadvertently, his Archie Rice tribute act makes the prime minister look sensible and serious
So low was the bar set for her leadership speech that Theresa May only had to get through it without falling over for it to be proclaimed a wild success. She even managed to sashay onto the stage, and, during the course of a sober, competent address, put Boris Johnson in his place, lifted the cap on local councils borrowing to build homes and ended austerity. Not world peace, but, to the undernourished Tory activists anxiously looking over the shoulders at Jeremy Corbyn, some very welcome messages. She passed the test.
Much the same could be said for the entire conference week. Despite the adulation enjoyed by Mr Johnson, despite the wide-open divisions on Brexit, despite the lacklustre speeches by her cabinet colleagues, the conference could have been far, far worse, for the prime minister and for her party.
But, as Ms May once famously said, “nothing has changed”. When the hangovers have dissipated, the genuine and deep splits over the UK’s future relationship with the EU remain exactly as they were before the Tories descended on Birmingham. It is still unresolved, to put it mildly. Ms May, perhaps unwisely from the point of view of her own personal political interest, went out of her way to rule out the Canada option – a free trade deal that is both popular among Tory hard-Brexiteers and the European Commission.
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She also ruled out the Norway option, and, with it, any notion of a “softer” Brexit than the one she set out in her Chequers plan – a plan that dare not speak its name these days, even in her own leader’s speech.
Mr Johnson, and many others in and around the conference have loudly called on her to “chuck Chequers” – but the Chequers plan has already been chucked out by the EU 27, as Ms May found to her intense irritation at the Salzburg summit. As autumn turns to winter, the abiding truth becomes ever clearer: there is no majority in the House of Commons for any of the Brexit strategies put forward by various factions and parties across the political spectrum.
In every case there is a bloc of MPs determined to vote any given option down. There is no consensus. Ms May ruled out a “Final Say” referendum, but she might be forced down that path, as a more preferable alternative to a general election and a Corbyn government. Besides, it is for parliament to decide on a Final Say vote, not her.
Ms May rededicated herself to the causes she pledged to pursue when she became leader a little over two long years ago. Again, she showed that she recognised that the economy has not been working for all of Britain’s citizens and, again, pledged to help them. The liberation of local councils’ borrowing powers was by far the most portentous announcement of the week. Provided that local authorities do not abuse their ability to borrow, and provided the Treasury doesn’t unnecessarily constrain them again, it could prove to be the boost to social housing that the nation has been demanding for many years.
Mr Johnson says that the Tories cannot win by “aping” Labour; but Ms May suggested that they could if they respond to people’s hopes and fears. She doesn’t use the expression “just about managing” these days, but she is sincere about her intentions. The real problem is that, having highlighted over and again the “burning injustices” that brought her into politics, she has so little to show for her efforts.
In her speech, she showed some maturity and dignity in, for example, standing up for Diane Abbott, pleading for a better way of conducting political debate and expressing gratitude for the way her local NHS trust helps her to treat her diabetes. She was right, too, to call out extremism and antisemitism in the Labour Party – the only shame being that Labour allowed this scandal to fester for so long. She did her best, too, to remind the public about why nationalisation is no panacea for acknowledged problems on the railways. She offered automatic refunds for cancelled or late services. However, voters on Northern Rail may no longer be listening.
Slowly, gradually Ms May seems to be regaining some of the political and personal composure she lost during her twin terrors of 2017 – the disastrous snap election closely followed by a farcical party conference. She may well never recover all of the respect she enjoyed in the earlier days of her premiership, and many of her MPs would never allow her to lead them into an election. Yet her leadership is a little more secure than it was a week ago. Mr Johnson’s very showmanship merely points up the risk he represents, and, inadvertently, his Archie Rice tribute act makes Ms May look sensible and serious.
Ms May’s rivals are many and divided among themselves, and the pressure of events as Brexit nears makes a leadership challenge increasingly improbable. As she goes back to Downing Street, the prime minister might be forgiven for humming a few more bars from that Abba hit. How do the lines go? “Ooh, see that girl, watch that scene, digging the dancing queen.”
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