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Has mountain air gone to Theresa May’s head?

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There must be something in the mountain air which goes to the Prime Minister’s head.

Theresa May has a habit of going on walking holidays in the hills and coming back with some punchy ideas.

Back in April she went to Snowdonia, having insisted there would never be an early general election, only to return to tell the voters they would soon be going to the polls once again.

This summer it’s the Swiss Alps which has hosted the prime ministerial thinking cap and the results are no less peculiar.

Theresa May left the country a chastened and diminished figure, gingerly telling her MPs that she would serve as prime minister only “so long as you want me”.

Yesterday, as the new political season loomed, the lady, not for the first time, has turned. When asked by my Sky News colleague Jason Farrell whether she would fight the next election in 2022 as Conservative leader, she gave a straightforward “Yes.”

She was in it “for the long term”.


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On one level it’s easy to see why she has done this. Prime Ministers always face an invidious situation when asked questions about their tenure in Number 10. Give an indication of their political lifespan and they rapidly become a lame duck as both Tony Blair and David Cameron discovered to their cost.

On the other hand, suggest that you wish “to go on and on”, as Margaret Thatcher did and you risk rattling your backbenchers and emboldening your enemies. It also sports the not inconsiderable whiff of megalomania.

Thatcher found that and she had won three general elections when she said it. Three months ago Theresa May, by contrast, squandered the first Conservative majority the party had had for a quarter of a century.

In the haze of that setback, stunned Tory MPs hardly knew which way to turn. So unexpected was the rebuff from the electorate, conventional wisdom suggested the PM had to go.

Theresa May
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Theresa May has said she wants to stay on as PM

But with a hung parliament it was important to establish that the Conservatives had the right to govern. Deposing her might have put that at risk and given Jeremy Corbyn a chance to form a government. So she stayed. After that, a prostrate prime minister threw herself on the mercy of her backbenchers, who through a mixture of knowing the Brexit clock was already ticking and for sheer lack of any especially appealing alternatives decided to keep her on.

But even then the implicit assumption was that her grip on office was extremely slippery. She would, many assumed, spell out her intentions at the autumn party conference. She would make clear she would take the party through the Brexit negotiations and then hand over after that to a new generation at some point in 2019.

This has put paid to that theory. The PM was clear. She could have sidestepped it but chose not to. In a summer curiously devoid of Conservative introspection as to why they lost their majority (and what to do about it) this threatens to reignite the speculation and plotting and end the fragile peace.

A senior Tory told me this morning: “My concern is she actually believes what she has said. She is delusional.”


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In terms of the short term political impact of this and whether the Tory cold war turns hot, that seems to me to be the crux of the matter. If Tory MPs, especially those who might fancy themselves for the leadership, and their supporters, believe that this is something Mrs May just had to say to bolster her authority, then it should die off pretty quickly.

If, however, they believe this is the beginning of an attempt to reconstruct the May premiership for the long term, it might spell trouble.

But is it impossible? If Trump could become president surely it’s not beyond the realms of possibility she could turn things around? After all the Tories, after a pretty rancid summer, are still polling at around 40%, more or less where they were at the general election.

There is potentially one, narrow path to victory. If May can secure a decent Brexit deal with the EU and somehow get it through the House of Commons she will have accomplished a significant act of statecraft. Her place in history would be assured. It is possible to imagine that the gratitude of her party might be sufficiently strong as to cement her in place.

But those are truly enormous ifs. In a week in which the Brexit negotiations have sunk even further into an intractable mud, the prospect of getting a deal which is considered a true success has never seemed more remote. Likewise even if she can secure a deal, getting it through the House without tearing the Tory party apart will be an even more remarkable feat. If she can’t do both she’ll have to resign in 2019, if not before.


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But even if she can do both, how likely is it that MPs would want her to stay anyway? What is the point of May, without Brexit? What would the post 2019 May programme for government look like?

As a result of losing her majority, every single major domestic initiative the prime minister has championed – Grammar schools, workers on boards, social care reform – has come to dust. What would she do for three years? The only way to reinvigorate her programme would be an early general election to get the majority back. And surely for this PM of all PMs, once bitten, twice shy.

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