In just over three weeks’ time, if she lasts that long, Theresa May will have remained in office for two full years since the general election which she so unfortunately arranged to be held on 8th June 2017.
When asked what is going to happen next in British politics, I generally reply that all my recent predictions have been wrong. Like the Prime Minister, I thought the Conservatives would end up with a much bigger majority at that election.
The party instead lost the slim overall majority it had gained under David Cameron’s leadership in 2015. It found itself with 13 fewer seats, while Labour under the despised Jeremy Corbyn had gained 30 seats. The Conservatives had increased their share of the vote, but here too Labour had gained more.
Could May carry on after such a grievous blow? She cobbled up a deal with the ten Democratic Unionists, which in the short term meant she could stay in office, but she was now vulnerable to even a minor parliamentary rebellion.
In October 2017 I had to reach some sort of provisional verdict about how long she was going to survive, because the deadline had arrived for the account of her which I was writing for my book, Gimson’s Prime Ministers: Brief Lives from Walpole to May.
My view was that she would probably be gone within the month, so I warned the publishers that we might well need at the last moment to replace, with the news that she had been overthrown or had found the burden too heavy to bear, my final paragraphs, which began by touching on the impact of the 2017 general election result:
This was a heavy blow to May’s authority over her own party. Her imperious manner began to seem like the self-defence mechanism of a limited woman, and Cabinet ministers started to squabble openly between themselves. Since the party was far from agreed on who to replace her with, and afraid of having to fight another general election, and each faction feared it might end up with someone less amenable to pressure than May, it decided she should nevertheless be given the chance to struggle on, and to try to cope with the complexities of Brexit.
At the party conference held in Manchester in the autumn of 2017, she tried to regain the initiative, but instead advertised her vulnerability by grinding repeatedly to a halt during her own speech, overcome by fits of coughing. She evoked pity rather than respect, and it seemed unlikely she could continue for long to sustain the burden of high office. Even sooner than most of her predecessors, May had demonstrated the precarious and transitory nature of a tenancy at 10 Downing Street.
Yet here she is in May 2019, still in Downing Street. Conventional opinion holds that she is on her way out, and will very soon be gone.
But conventional opinion has been wrong before. She possesses far greater tenacity than most of us realised: a characteristic shown also in her long tenure of the Home Office.
May, in short, has been underestimated. Condescending men, a category in which I include myself, neither predicted until very shortly before the event that she was going to become Prime Minister, nor understood her power to hold on to that office.
Her professionalism is discounted. Because her answers are boring, they are dismissed as useless. That is seldom the case. She is a good judge of what it is safe to say on any given topic.
If she did not possess that judgment, we would condemn her as a loose cannon. Once the conventional judges have taken against someone, they can generally find the supporting evidence, even if what actually sways them is the opinion of people exactly like themselves.
The conventional judges took against Corbyn. They decided he was useless, so were surprised by his ability in the 2017 election to appeal to the wider public.
Corbyn conducts himself according to a socialist creed which is regarded as hopelessly out of date, and indeed hopelessly unrealistic in the first place, by most people who write about him.
This week, at Prime Minister’s Questions, he accused the Government of being “in the pockets of an elite few”. He engaged in old-fashioned class warfare. This kind of appeal could turn out to be less unpopular than well-paid pundits would like it to be.
May conducts herself according to an Anglican creed which is regarded, by those same pundits, as hopelessly out of date, and indeed hopelessly unrealistic in the first place.
I would guess she emerges refreshed from her Sunday devotions in a way few of them can even imagine. There, in plain sight, for how often has she been photographed coming out of church, is one of the main reasons for her resilience.
She is not just dependent on party politics. Her faith gives her strength. So does the whole idea of duty with which she was brought up. She knows you do not just give up just because something is difficult and painful and you seem to be getting nowhere.
If you have not been brought up to believe this, it is almost impossible to understand, or at least to convey to others, especially if, like May, you have no real gift of language (there comes the male condescension breaking in again).
At Cabinet this week, May spoke of the need for compromise. That is a quintessentially Anglican idea: the national Church saw the need to unite the country round a compromise which can be regarded, according to taste, as either Catholic or Protestant, or indeed as both.
Dogmatists of both persuasions threw up their hands in horror, which is what has happened during Brexit. Nothing is pure enough to satisfy the most dogmatic Leavers’ and Remainers’ ideas of purity.
So it is not difficult to find a stick, or indeed two sticks, with which to beat the Prime Minister.
I had not expected, when I started this article, to end up defending her. For I am a conventional person, and accept the conventional verdict that she is finished.
But once she has been dragged out of Downing Street, perhaps it will be seen that her deal, her compromise, was not so bad after all. She has tried to hold us together through difficult times, and that is a noble endeavour.