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John Rentoul: May goes from strength to strength
January 04, 2018
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Theresa May’s premiership touched rock bottom when she took a phone call from Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, after lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker on December 4.

She thought she had a deal and was about to announce it, and then she didn’t. Her appearance on the platform in Brussels with Juncker afterwards was, in the circumstances, a masterclass in composure. She and Juncker had agreed to go out and talk up the prospects of a deal later in the week, which they did, briefly and convincingly.

That in itself was an achievement on May’s part. Previously, the EU side in the talks had insisted that December 4 was a hard deadline. Suddenly, it gave May to the end of the week to sort out the problem with the DUP.

It is an exaggeration to say her premiership hung in the balance over the next few days. Even if she hadn’t been able to get the talks back on track, the Conservative Party was not ready to replace her and she knew that, in the end, the DUP did not want to put Jeremy Corbyn in power.

But that didn’t stop many journalists exaggerating. They recalled how the DUP had kept the country waiting for 17 days after the election before confirming that its MPs would support a minority Conservative government. They speculated that the required number of Tory MPs, 48, were ready to write to Graham Brady, chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, to trigger a vote of confidence in May’s leadership.

I think that, even if that vote had been triggered, she would have won it. So there wouldn’t have been a leadership election, but that did not stop people speculating about Boris Johnson, David Davis, Michael Gove or even Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Nor did mere facts stop them talking about “Corbyn by Christmas”. The DUP would never have switched to back someone they see as an IRA supporter as prime minister; nor would they or the Tories agree to an early election.

CHANGE IN FORTUNE

But 2018 would have looked a very different prospect for May if she had failed to bring the DUP round and secure the breakthrough to the next stage of the Brexit talks.

So when she boarded the plane to Brussels in the dark at 4.30am on Friday December 8, to announce the deal, her fortunes were on the turn.

Her premiership had been brought low by the election result in June and had been plumbing the depths ever since. When she called the election she had a 37-point lead over Corbyn as “best prime minister”, which disappeared to level-pegging by polling day. Over the weekend, after the Brussels breakthrough, her lead stretched back to nine points.

She faces the New Year in a stronger position than she has enjoyed since the election. The first crucial step was Philip Hammond’s Budget in November, which didn’t immediately unravel. With that low bar cleared successfully, the stage was set for a Gordon Brown-style rally. Brown was more unpopular than May after he decided against calling an election in the autumn of 2007, but after the financial crisis struck the following year he started to earn some grudging respect from the voters – enough, in the end, to deny the Tories a majority in the 2010 election.

Now Theresa May has earned some respect for making progress in the Brexit talks. “We have at last seen her strengths,” declared Daniel Hodges in the The Mail on Sunday. “Determination. Patience. Pragmatism. Resilience.”

That doesn’t mean the next stage of the Brexit talks will be a success. There will probably be more than one bump along the bottom again before March 2019.

THE ROAD AHEAD

But now it is clear to everyone that, if she wants to and if disruptive events don’t intervene, she will be the Prime Minister who oversees Brexit. And we know that she wants not just to see Brexit through but to lead the Conservatives into the next election, probably four and a half years away.

We’ll see what the Tory party thinks of that. I suspect it is ruthless enough to insist that such a poor campaigner cannot fight another election. But in the meantime Conservative support seems to be holding up at around 40 per cent in the opinion polls, which settles Tory MPs’ nerves. She is certainly secure for the next 15 months, and that gives her a certain power.

She can carry out a reshuffle when she wants to, which will instil some discipline in the parliamentary party, and her whip’s office seems to have worked out how to manage the Commons with a small working majority, with the DUP, of just 13.

Things will get harder again. Negotiating Brexit will be hard enough, and getting the legislation for it through the House of Lords, where she doesn’t have a majority at all, could be harder still. But she goes into 2018 in a stronger position than seemed possible just a few days ago.

The Independent

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