Theresa May ends 2017 on a happy note after calamitous year

The EU’s decision to allow Brexit negotiations to move on to a second phase was a high point for the prime minister, whose gamble on an early election backfired spectacularly

British prime minister Theresa May has some chips and a drink while on a walkabout during a election campaign stop in Mevagissey, Cornwall. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/PA Wire

British prime minister Theresa May has some chips and a drink while on a walkabout during a election campaign stop in Mevagissey, Cornwall. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/PA Wire

 

The decision by European Union leaders on December 15th to allow Brexit negotiations to move into a second phase ensured Theresa May ended the year with some degree of political comfort. Failure to agree there had been “sufficient progress” would have placed the prime minister under pressure to walk away from the talks, setting Britain on course for a disorderly Brexit, crashing out of the EU with no agreement on the future relationship between them.

The agreement reached in Brussels and the prospect of a standstill transition period has made such a “no deal” Brexit unlikely. The government’s defeat in parliament during the same week may have made it impossible, because MPs will now have a meaningful vote on the final deal.

The summit in Brussels, which saw EU leaders applaud May after she spoke about her plans for Brexit, was among the happiest moments in a calamitous year for the prime minister. With her gamble on an early election, she lost the Conservative majority in parliament and with it, most of her own authority.

Kept in office by Conservative MPs who fear the consequences of a leadership election, and dependent on the votes of 10 DUP MPs, she has a weak grip on her cabinet and little room for legislative manoeuvre.

The year began with her keynote speech on Brexit at Lancaster House, where she spelled out her three red lines in the negotiations. Britain would leave the single market and the customs union and leave the European Court of Justice. The speech pleased the hardline pro-Brexit wing of her party because it effectively ruled out a close relationship with the EU similar to that enjoyed by Norway.

In her approach to Brexit, May has been much more alert to the risk of a rebellion from the right of her party than to any need to keep pro-EU conservatives on board. The strategy appeared to be popular, with the Conservatives 20 points ahead of Labour in the polls during the spring.

The prime minister’s calm response to a terrorist attack in Westminster drew wide praise and boosted her image as a dull but safe pair of hands.

“In March, she walked on water. In July, she was submerged,” one Conservative backbencher said.

What made the difference was May’s unexpected decision in April to call a general election three years before it was due under the Fixed Term Parliament Act. With her party so far ahead and Labour divided and unpopular under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the move seemed an obvious one, even if she had promised to allow the current parliament to serve its full term.

She justified her change of mind on the basis that she needed a bigger majority to strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations, adding a spurious claim that Labour was trying to stop Britain leaving the EU.

The campaign began with predictions the Conservatives would win a majority of more than 100 and that Labour could return with fewer than 150 seats. Corbyn’s enemies in his own party prepared gleefully for defeat and for the inevitable move against the leader and his coterie that would follow.

Awkward, plodding campaigner

The campaign was among the most extraordinary in British political history, paused twice by serious terrorist attacks and turning expectations on their heads. May proved to be an awkward, plodding campaigner and her refusal to take part in television debates played badly. But the Conservatives’ greatest disaster was their manifesto, which included untested proposals on issues like social care and pensions that alarmed the party’s core voters.

May’s retreat from some of her own manifesto’s policies made a mockery of her campaign slogan promising “strong and stable” government.

Corbyn, by contrast, proved an engaging and energetic campaigner, drawing big crowds at rallies across the country. Labour’s manifesto, which was more left-wing than any since 1983, was popular with young voters and with many traditional working-class voters who had deserted the party for Ukip. The party’s ambiguous approach to Brexit was successful too, allowing it to make gains in the pro-Remain south-east of England without alienating too many Labour supporters elsewhere who voted Leave.

Above all, Labour’s mass membership, and the support of the energetic and imaginative pro-Corbyn group Momentum, helped the party to run a campaign that was far superior to the Conservatives’.

May’s attempt to cobble together a majority after the election left her with no option other than the DUP, who she discovered, in the words of one Conservative, “do politics very well” and secured a £1.5 billion deal in return for their support. The prime minister’s handling of the Grenfell Tower fire exposed her weakness as a communicator and her speech at the Conservative conference in October, when she lost her voice, served as a reminder of what an unlucky politician she is.

As she moved towards the end of the year, she continued to preside over a divided cabinet that includes a number of ministers who covet her job. But she has succeeded in one big strategic aim by moving the Brexit talks on to the issue of the future trading relationship and despite the occasional rebellion, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill looks set overcome its parliamentary hurdles.

Most Conservative MPS believe May will still be prime minister after Britain leaves the EU in March 2019 and that the party will do everything possible to avoid an election it fears it will lose.

“Probably all MPs believe in something,” one backbencher said.

“At least in some dim recess of their heart there is some belief that drives them in politics. To allow Corbyn in would offend every fibre in our being.”

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