To say politics of the last two years has been unpredictable is an understatement. What is more, there is no chance of it becoming any clearer any time soon. Just over six months ago, Theresa May was 20 points ahead in the polls, a strong and stable leader with a vice-like grip on her own Party. She triggered an election with everyone expecting a commanding majority as the only outcome. Jeremy Corbyn did not have the support of most of his own Parliamentary Party let alone any appeal beyond the hard-left among the public at large. Supporters and opposition alike expected that the Conservatives could remain in power for a generation.
Fast forward a few weeks and the Prime Minister came to be seen as the antithesis of strong and stable. She not only failed to get her big majority but lost the small majority she had inherited. In any other situation May would have resigned the same next day but without a credible alternative she struggled on. Political orthodoxy dictated that she would be limping for the rest of her limited time in office and would never get close to fighting an election again. She would be subject to the disunited will of the cabinet and carry the can for the inevitable disappointment over the terms of Brexit – for remainers or leavers or both, depending on the final deal reached. This inevitable logic concluded that Theresa May has a long stop departure date of 29 March 2017 – the date the UK leaves the EU. The baggage of bruising EU negotiations and dashed expectations would depart with her to allow a new leader a fresh start. By the end of Party Conference 2017, it seemed Theresa May might not even last a fortnight, let alone 18 months, however, once again a lack of an credible alternative saved her. She struggled on with a big question mark over whether she would see in the New Year.
Despite all the impending inevitability, something strange has started to happen in recent weeks. The political limp she has been nursing has looked distinctly less pronounced. The bickering of some in her cabinet has taken the focus off her and allowed her to quietly get on with the job. The political goodwill surrounding the financial deal with the EU paving the way for trade talks has, if not given her a spring in her step, certainly allowed her to stride more briskly towards the end of the year.
Her potential challengers, such that they are, seem as unlikely to mount a successful challenge as any time since June. Her most ambitious would-be successor, Boris Johnson, has done more to harm himself over recent months than any of his detractors could have hoped for. There is no consensus about the other leadership hopefuls in cabinet and the next generation still lack the experience to be a serious challenger to the Prime Minister in the next few years.
If a Brexit deal can be reached by March 2019, and it is a big “if,” it is hard to see anyone being in any better place to mount a challenge in just 15 months’ time. The longer the Prime Minister continues the stronger she gets and the more her date of departure is in her hands. Regardless of the deal struck with the EU, provided a deal is indeed struck, it is conceivable that May and the government will enjoy a brief feeling of goodwill from the country for navigating the course and showing staying power. Much will then depend on May’s own personal ambition. She has held an early election already and lost however, by the summer of 2019 she will have nothing left to lose and may find a possible lead in the polls too tempting once again.