Can a newly defiant May lead the Tories to victory?

Can a newly defiant May lead the Tories to victory?
epa05408697 British Home Secretary Theresa May leaves No10 Downing Street after attending a Cabinet Meeting in London, Britain, 05 July 2016. May is one of the candidates for Conservative party leadership to succeed David Cameron. Tory MPs have started voting on the party's leadership. EPA/WILL OLIVER

As MPs get ‘back to school’ ready after the long summer break, there was a surprise missive from the headteacher.

During a visit to Japan, Theresa May vowed on Wednesday to remain in power for five years and fight the next election as Conservative Party leader, saying ‘I’m not a quitter’.

The Prime Minister added: ‘Yes, I’m here for the long term. What me and my government are about is not just delivering on Brexit but delivering a brighter future for the UK.’

She stunned Tory MPs by saying that she would remain in office to guide the country through Brexit and beyond. Her defiant pledge to take the Tories through the 2022 election shocked Westminster. After losing her party’s majority by calling a snap election in June, it seemed that she was humiliated and damaged beyond repair.

Indeed, back then, former Chancellor George Osborne helpfully labelled her a ‘dead woman walking’, and leadership challenge rumours and plots abounded.

Emboldened it seems by a walking holiday with her husband Philip through the hills of Snowdonia – the very place where she decided to call the disastrous election, she made her new declaration.

Many in the Conservative Party had presumed she would lead the country only through the Brexit mess, which should be finalised in March 2019 – if she were not toppled before then.

Labour immediately waded in to say she was ‘deluding herself’. But with the Tories running scared of Jeremy Corbyn, some feel it could be better to stick with May than further destabilise the party with a leadership battle.

Senior Tories too immediately poured cold water on May’s plans. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan said it would be difficult for her to fight another election. Tory grandee Michael Heseltine said she had no long-term future. He said that Conservative MPs needed to decide whether they wanted a repeat of May’s election battle with Jeremy Corbyn, adding: ‘My own guess is they won’t. The long term is the difficult one for Theresa May because I don’t think she’s got a long term.’

Osborne compared the Prime Minister to a zombie. He accused her of staggering on oblivious, like the “living dead in a second-rate horror film”.

Her leadership rivals will be privately dismayed that she has effectively said she will not resign before the next election. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson immediately gave May his ‘undivided backing’.

The former Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps likened May’s interview to Margaret Thatcher’s pledge to “go on and on”, a phrase she came to regret.

But there has also been some admiration for a Prime Minister who has chosen not to run away when the going got tough.

So are we witnessing the death throes of a Norma Desmond Prime Minister, who like the heroine of the film Sunset Boulevard has lost touch with reality? Or is this newly defiant May going to lead the Tories to victory? Only time will tell, but certainly there is much to discuss in the tea rooms when MPs return to the House next Tuesday.

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