Don’t dismiss Theresa May just yet

The Prime Minister said she intends to fight the next election, and we should keep an open mind on that.

Theresa May ran a disastrous election campaign. She squandered a polling lead topping 24% points over Labour in the first week of the campaign and finished with a narrow 2.5% lead over Labour, with the effect of losing the Conservatives’ commons majority and shedding 13 seats. Her Downing Street operation before the election was, at best, poor, and at worst down-right insulting to her Government colleagues. Her lack of respect for Britain’s system of cabinet government angered Ministers and Government departments.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Theresa May’s election blunder left her incredibly weak in the following weeks. With Sunday newspapers running leadership speculation like clockwork, Theresa May eventually gathered some authority and strength to tell her cabinet to stop leaking the details of meetings, and then led a successful final Prime Minister’s Questions before the summer recess. The cabinet divisions that erupted in the early summer while May was on holiday appeared to subside following the show of unity between Chancellor Philip Hammond and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox.

May now finds herself facing an autumn parliamentary session that could prove fundamental to the survival of her premiership. Her corporate reforms, LGBT rights reforms and the big whammy that is the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill all come before parliament. If all of them get through the Commons and the Lords mostly unscathed, May’s standing in parliament will be greatly improved. Not to mention that October marks the Party’s Conference in Manchester, when May will be expected to rally the Conservative base back around her leadership after an election that has left members angry and desiring big changes.

The thing about Theresa May is that she’s right when she says she “just gets on with the job” – and she’s survived since Election Day in no small part because she has the incredible ability to just keep buggering on. The call for an election was a very out of character move for the Prime Minister that was led to the decision by MPs and advisors that thought Corbyn would soon resign. If she can demonstrate that she is still an effective parliamentary operator she could, in theory, win some respect from her party once again. Passing the EU Withdrawal Bill is the first step; the next is bringing proposals on agriculture and other current EU-determined policy areas. Comprehensive reform to three areas to better suit British producers would undoubtedly curry favour and set the Government back on track.

If May can convince the Conservative membership to at least give her a second chance this autumn, that begs the question as to when that chance expires. If May can deliver a good Brexit deal, she could resign in style – or she could run an election campaign based on that record. If she gets no deal, she will have to stay in place to deal with the economic effects and warn of a new recession, while providing some political stability by staying in post – possibly until the next election in 2022.

The truth is that we simply cannot determine at this point when May is going to go – or indeed when the best point for a new Prime Minister is. We may wind up with no other choice but to have May in place as Conservative leader at the next election, and she may yet win Tories back over to her cause. But let’s also remember this timeline of events:

The election campaign started with the centre-right conservative party, led by a new woman leader, having a 21% point lead over their social democrat opponents. The end result was a slender 1% lead over those opponents. Everyone thought that leader was a gonner; she’d squandered her lead and left her party embarrassed. Was that Theresa May? No. That was Angela Merkel in 2005. This September she is running for a fourth term as Chancellor of Germany. I’m not saying May will survive past 2020 (my opinion is she won’t), but don’t write the Prime Minister off just yet.

I’m not saying May will be just like Angela Merkel or will serve four terms. What I am saying is that we need to approach this with an open mind and not jump to conclusions about the Prime Minister. If May fights another election it will be because she has either earned the right to or because there is no other choice. But whatever we currently think of May, Tories should desire her Government be a success. We live in turbulent times, and we should be careful not to write anything off – including the current occupant of No.10.

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