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Denis Staunton: The remarkable staying power of Theresa May

In her mostly unsuccessful time in office, May has shown remarkable political resilience

Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative conference in Birmingham on Wednesday was one of her best, well-constructed with a coherent argument that hit most of the notes the occasion demanded. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Immediately before Theresa May appeared onstage at the Conservative conference at Birmingham's International Convention Centre on Wednesday, two questions were on everyone's lips. How would she exorcise the memory of last year's disaster, when she coughed her way through the speech as the backdrop behind her disintegrated? And how was she going to follow the extraordinary warm-up act we had just witnessed?

Attorney general Geoffrey Cox, whose successful practice at the Bar has made him the highest-earning MP at Westminster, put all his expensive skills on display in an oratorical tour de force that thrilled the Tory faithful. In his rich basso profundo as mellifluous as Richard Burton or Brian Blessed, he ended with a stirring quotation from Milton.

“Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks. Methinks I see her as eagle mewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam,” he boomed before striding off into the wings, leaving his audience thrilled and bewildered in equal measure.

We heard Abba's Dancing Queen before we saw the prime minister and everyone recognised the reference to her awkward, robotic dancing on a recent visit to Africa. When she danced onstage in a jerky sashay and continued to gyrate behind the podium, it looked bizarre but also endearing. She had won over the hall before uttering a single word.


Sustained attack

The speech itself, the work of special adviser Keelan Carr, was one of May’s best, well-constructed with a coherent argument that hit most of the notes the occasion demanded. In her sustained attack on Jeremy Corbyn, she taunted Labour centrists by contrasting their current leader with figures from the past such as Denis Healey and Barbara Castle.

She made a persuasive argument in favour of compromise in the Brexit negotiations, warning hardliners on the Conservative backbenches about the perils of making the perfect the enemy of the good.

“If we all go off in different directions in pursuit of our own visions of the perfect Brexit, we risk ending up with no Brexit at all,” she said.

“The people we serve are not interested in debates about the theory of Brexit – their livelihoods depend on making a success of it in practice. A Brexit that might make Britain stronger 50 years from now is no good to you if it makes your life harder today.”

Brexiteers at the conference wore stickers saying “Chuck Chequers” but May didn’t once mention the name given to her proposal to keep Britain aligned to EU regulations for goods. Her advisers said later that she would use the word Chequers in the future but it has become so toxic within her party that nobody is expecting it to hear it very soon.

Beauty contest

Before her speech, the conference had served as a beauty contest for her prospective successors, with cabinet ministers introducing elements of their personal biography into speeches from the main stage. At fringe meetings, Jacob Rees-Mogg drew big crowds but Boris Johnson drew the biggest of all – 1,400 people, some of whom had queued for three hours.

Wisely ignoring advice that he should sound statesmanlike, Johnson gave a funny, rabble-rousing speech that demonstrated his unrivalled appeal to the Conservative grassroots. But only a handful of MPs showed up, underlining the difficulty Johnson will face in persuading his colleagues to choose him as one of the two names that go to the Tory membership in a leadership election.

Although his speech ranged over a number of domestic policy issues as well as Brexit, he offered no new initiatives or solutions to any of the problems Britain faces. After Brexit, the biggest issue at the conference was how Conservatives should come up with policies to compete with Labour’s on the economy, education, living standards and the role of the state.

“Just about managing”

When May took office in 2016, she started to articulate an approach to government that promised to make Britain fairer and to help those who are “just about managing”. She combined this with an appeal to provincialism that she articulated in her notorious 2016 conference speech.

“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means,” she said.

This was part of May’s strategy to win back Ukip voters and to win over Labour voters who backed Brexit in the referendum. The strategy was partially successful in the 2017 general election, when many Leave voters in the midlands and the north of England did return to the Conservatives.

But this success was offset by the flight of Remainers in the South, including younger voters who backed Labour and helped to rob the Conservatives of former strongholds such as Canterbury and Kensington and Chelsea. Analysis of the Brexit referendum often focuses on the role of identity in motivating Leave voters but for many Remainers, Brexit is a question of identity too.

Many of those who felt heartbroken the morning after the referendum still think of themselves as European as well as British, and they will never vote Conservative as long as it is the party of Brexit.

May’s speech on Wednesday ensured that her conference was not a disaster but she is now facing into the most decisive weeks of the Brexit negotiations. In the next few days, Britain will present its proposal for the Border backstop, which remains the biggest obstacle in the way of sealing a withdrawal agreement.

De-dramatised backstop

The proposal is likely to accept most of the EU's latest ideas for a de-dramatised backstop, which would leave Northern Ireland under EU regulations for goods and agricultural products, but with minimal checks at ports on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.

The whole of the UK would effectively remain in a customs union with the EU, although the arrangement would be a temporary one until a permanent deal on the economic relationship between Britain and the EU comes into operation. There are important disagreements between the two sides on the backstop, and the DUP and some Conservative backbenchers are deeply sceptical of the latest proposals, but a solution is closer than ever before.

If May succeeds in agreeing a deal with the EU, she must still persuade Parliament to approve it and on the face of it, there is no majority in the House of Commons for any single Brexit deal. Throughout her mostly unsuccessful time in office, May has been successful in one respect: she has lost very few votes in Parliament.

This is partly a product of her indefatigability, partly of her slipperiness in dealing with colleagues but it could help her to carry out the final duty her party demands – delivering Brexit. Once Britain has left the EU at the end of March, her MPs will show their gratitude by telling her to step out of the way so a new leader can settle in before the next election.

May has shown herself over the past two years to be nothing if not resilient and when her rivals in the Conservative party call time on her premiership, there is no guarantee that she will go quietly.