Most surprising thing about May’s speech was that she survived to give it

Brexit is a challenge to test any charismatic, brilliant leader. May is neither

Those clips of British prime minister Theresa May dancing on the stage to deliver her speech at this week's Conservative party conference have the making of a classic Reeling in the Years moment.

The newspaper colour writers and the wags on Twitter had fun suggesting alternative songs from the Abba catalogue the titles of which might more colourfully reflect the predicament May find herself it. Waterloo and SOS proved the most popular of these suggestions.

However, for a large cohort of the Conservative party, and for more British voters than Remainers might wish to acknowledge, May will have come across as a Super Trouper who can laugh at herself and who is bravely fighting on two fronts against an intransigent Europe Union on one side and ardent Brexiteers in her own party on the other.

Now it is clear that Theresa May will endure as prime minister until at least next April

Indeed the most remarkable thing about May’s speech as leader to this Conservative conference was that she was giving it at all. She was the surprise successor to David Cameron in July 2016. She squandered the Conservative Party’s majority in parliament in a catastrophic election campaign in April 2017. Since then she has been presumed to be leading on borrowed time. Now, however, it is clear that she will endure as prime minister until at least next April – two years after that disastrous election outcome.

Clinging to power

When, this time last year, she suffered a horror of a party conference when her live speech got lost in a series of coughing fits, it was thought she was merely clinging to power because nobody else wanted the job yet. Her premiership survived a further wobble when foreign secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit secretary David Davis resigned because they couldn't sign up to her revised Chequers strategy for exiting the EU. She also survived the recent diplomatic humiliation of the Salzburg summit when Europe leader dismissed her Chequers offering in the Brexit negotiations as unworkable.

Brexit is a mess Theresa May inherited. It was something she campaigned against, albeit mildly

The strange reality of May becoming and continuing to be British prime minister is of course shaped by Brexit. It is a mess she inherited. It was something she campaigned against, albeit mildly. For the last 27 months, May and her officials have tried to work through what Brexit means and how diplomatic and political expression can be given to what a slim majority of the British electorate voted for. It’s a challenge on a scale that would have tested a leader who was both charismatic and brilliant. Theresa May is neither. Notwithstanding the complexity of Brexit and the political turbulence it has given rise to, however, she has achieved the first key requirement, namely survival.


Many of us in the rest of Europe have watched on in horror at some of the antics at the Conservative Party conference. Boris Johnson was predictably swashbuckling and jingoistic. He was matched in his now-predictable absurdity only by Jacob Rees-Mogg. We were more surprised at some of the rabble-rousing engaged in from the official conference podium. The suggestion from the new foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, that the EU’s attitude to the UK leaving was akin to the former USSR’s approach to recalcitrant states trying to leave the Soviet bloc was particularly galling.

Several prominent former eastern European politicians expressed their anger at Hunt’s bizarre characterisation. Most serving European politicians held their tongue, however. Irish politicians in the main did the same. They know that the Conservative leadership needed to water and manure their grass roots at conference before entering the final round of Brexit negotiations.

Europe’s leaders and those of us trying to analysis a pathway to a Brexit deal must now wait a few days to see if May has bought herself sufficient time and space to offer a compromise. There has been intense diplomatic and media speculation that she is about to do so.

Crucial moment

As it happens, our own Government’s Budget 2019 next week is unlikely to be the most important political event of the coming days. Instead, the key issue next week will be this further British offering on proposed arrangements for trade between these islands and on the legal text of the backstop designed to avoid a border on this island if talks fail. The precise nature of this offering and, the reaction of the Irish Government, the European institutions and the Democratic Unionist Party will be a crucial moment in the Brexit negotiation endgame.

Pascal Donohue’s budget speech on Tuesday is likely to be lowkey and cautious and most of its interesting provision has already been well flagged. The budget will be assured of passage because of the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil. Holding the cross-party consensus together on the Irish response to the British proposals on Brexit will not be as easy.

Theresa May has career-defining choices to make in the weeks to come. She is not the only one. Irish Ministers and Northern Ireland politicians also have much at stake.