Tom Peterkin: Theresa May left licking self-inflicted wounds

The Prime Minister is clinging to office, but her misjudgments have all but sealed her fate, writes Tom Peterkin

One year on, Theresa May is a shell of the figure she once was, says Tom Peterkin. Picture: Getty Images
One year on, Theresa May is a shell of the figure she once was, says Tom Peterkin. Picture: Getty Images

Exactly a year ago today Theresa May presented herself to the Queen and was invited to form a government. She then stood outside Downing Street and promised to lead a “one nation” government that would represent all rather than just the “privileged few”.

At that point, the country could have been forgiven for heaving a gigantic sigh of relief. Back then, Mrs May seemed the ideal candidate to draw a line under the in-fighting that saw Michael Gove sink Boris Johnson’s leadership ambitions before falling foul of the outrage caused by his act of treachery.

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Tom Peterkin: Theresa May left licking self-inflicted wounds

Whatever Mrs May lacked in charisma was offset by the feeling that here was a crafty and solid enough citizen to settle things down after David Cameron’s catastrophic European referendum gamble that cost him his career.

How things have changed. One year on, Mrs May is a shell of the figure she once was. The Prime Minister is reeling from her own catastrophic snap election gamble that has all but destroyed her credibility. Having presided over a disastrous election, she is in office but not in power. Hopes from a year ago that she would provide the ballast as the UK attempts to navigate its way through Brexit now look faintly ridiculous.

Mr Cameron and Mrs May are living proof of the perils of political gambling. But anyone still fancying a flutter may care to note that the bookies are now tipping Mrs May to leave Downing Street before the EU withdrawal date of 29 March, 2019.

Given the challenges facing the Prime Minister, it looks a safe enough bet. A series of U-turns have made a mockery of her “strong and stable government” mantra. The £1 billion deal with the DUP to shore up her weak and wobbly administration may have been the only practical option open to the Prime Minister, but it is not a good look.

And having run a dismal general election campaign that highlighted an inability to connect with the public, her bungled handling of the Grenfell fire tragedy further exposed that character flaw in the starkest possible terms.

With her party split over hard and soft Brexits, and with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour riding high in the polls, Mrs May is finding that life in Number 10 under such circumstances is a very tricky business indeed.

As if all that was not enough, there are complicating factors coming out of the blue – an obvious example being the suspension of Anne-Marie Morris for referring to leaving the EU without a deal as “the n***** in the woodpile” .

Not only were Ms Morris’s racist remarks offensive and deeply embarrassing to the party, her suspension has cut an already flimsy Tory/DUP working majority – underlining the insecurity of Mrs May’s grip on power.

As she licks her mainly self-inflicted wounds, Mrs May must be pondering her own future. How long can she remain in the hot seat?

At first glance, her deal with the DUP may seem to lack longevity. But for all its toxicity, Arlene Foster and her acolytes are technocratic politicians who will not want to cut down the magic money tree. Moreover, they are more anxious than most to avoid yet another general election in case another Corbyn surge takes the Labour leader into Downing Street.

For Ms Foster et al, their distaste for Mr Corbyn is driven by his well-documented sympathies for a united Ireland and claims he met with members of the IRA.

These are exceptionally strongly held feelings, which are likely to underpin what at first glance may appear to be a rather rocky arrangement.

Rather, those wanting to read the runes on Mrs May’s future don’t need to look much further than the grumblings of her own colleagues in the Conservatives.

Within a fractious party, the signs are not good. At the weekend it was reported that Andrew Mitchell, an ally of Brexit Secretary David Davis, had described the Prime Minister as “dead in the water” when her fate was discussed at a Tory dinner.

Rumours of plots orchestrated by the right of the party abound, expressing fears that Mrs May might end up sabotaging their dream of a hard Brexit.

Meanwhile, there is a further complication coming from the new power base established by Ruth Davidson in Scotland.

The Tory revival north of the Border and the consequent neutering of the Scottish independence threat was one of the few positives Mrs May could salvage from the wreckage of the general election.

But nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Within hours of the general election result, an emboldened Ms Davidson – a fervent Remainer and supporter of the UK staying in the single market – indicated her preference for a soft Brexit by saying free trade should be at the heart of the EU withdrawal deal.

Having returned 13 MPs, the Scottish Tories are suddenly a force to be reckoned with, given the tightness of the parliamentary arithmetic.

Balancing these competing visions of Brexit while dealing with negotiators representing the remaining 27 EU member states would test Solomon – never mind Theresa May.

As of yet, none of those Tories touted as potential prime ministerial replacements – Boris Johnston, David Davis or Philip Hammond – has broken cover.

Such are the challenges facing the country, it suits them for Mrs May to limp on. The Prime Minister’s days may be numbered, but they are not over quite yet.