Theresa May approaches Christmas in good political shape. She is secure in her job, with approval ratings strong, and the European Union’s agreement to move on to the second stage of the Brexit talks. This has been an extraordinary political year by any standards and the Prime Minister has withstood all that Parliament and politics has thrown at her. This was by no means a given. There have been times in 2017 when it looked as though the Prime Minister would not survive the weekend.
The Prime Minister came into office at a time not of her own choosing. Her primary task is to deliver Brexit – a huge policy priority which she did not support or campaign for and despite subsequent invitations to do so she has refused to change her mind about her original opposition to leaving the EU. She inherited a divided party and country. She rightly called a General Election, but the execution of the campaign and the production of the manifesto were poor. These things happen. Instead of pushing off as so many leaders of both parties have done in recent times when things have not gone their way, Theresa May has stuck it out and got on with the job.
Wisely, she shook up her No 10 operation. In doing so she displayed the essential ruthlessness all leaders need to possess to survive. Her two key lieutenants, Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell and Director of Communications Robbie Gibb, have brought discipline and focus to the No 10 operation. They have supported and strengthened the Prime Minister and steadied the relationship between No 10 and the Parliamentary Conservative Party.
The Prime Minister has enjoyed a degree of luck, another essential ingredient for a successful political leader. First, Labour basically backs Brexit. It may quibble about the details but essentially both Labour and the Conservatives share a policy of the UK leaving the EU.
Secondly, the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10 concentrates minds. Conservatives should not not rely on this to scare voters, but it is a factor.
Thirdly, the Conservative Parliamentary Party has looked around and found no-one they can agree on to succeed Mrs May as Prime Minister.
Fourthly, the opinion polls show no sign at all that voters have changed their position on Brexit. It remains the majority view that Britain is leaving or should leave the European Union.
There are threats to the economy bigger than Brexit, even if it is seems dominant in British politics. Talk to big business leaders quietly and few put the issue in their top three of vital concerns. Brexit causes a degree of political uncertainty certainly, but many would say they worry much more about some or all of the following: a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn, the level of UK debt, poor productivity, the government’s perceived hostility to bigger business, and levels of education, training and skills.
There is also an understanding that Brexit is not in the end about business and trade, it is a political priority not a business one, which revolves around sovereignty, migration and a view about who and how Britain should be governed. It will be what it will be, and most big business leaders are canny and pragmatic enough to understand that. The gulf in sympathy between politicians and bigger business has rarely been wider – and that is something both sides should be concerned about.
In the end it is overwhelmingly likely the UK and the EU will arrive at an accommodation of the future relationship, and that that accommodation will be approved by Parliament. At that point Theresa May will have achieved something many said she would not be able to. Who then will say to her: “please now move on.” It is more than likely Theresa May will only leave No 10 when she is good and ready, and that may well be after another General Election.