Ben Rochelle is a Senior Political Consultant at The Whitehouse Consultancy.
Very few economists, politicians or pollsters predicted the Conservative Party’s failure to secure a majority at last summer’s general election. In 2016, most betting markets gave Hilary Clinton at least an 85 per cent chance of winning the American election – much the same probability given to a Remain outcome in the EU referendum at the start of that year. Against this backdrop of shocks and uncertainty, making firm political predictions may be unwise, but we can be confident that Theresa May will still be leading this country at the end of this year.
Despite a tumultuous twelve months, she is in a strong position. She has united the bulk of her Party around her vision of Brexit (while Labour still has no vision), and has largely kept the Government together, despite Cabinet resignations and the fallout from the sexual harassment scandal in Westminster. The polls show that Labour has not built on its position since the election, failing to capitalise on those resignations and the NHS winter crisis. The sacking of Damian Green before Christmas would have severely damaged the Party and the Prime Minister’s standing if it had been carried out in the days around the departures of Priti Patel and Michael Fallon, but removing the First Secretary of State at the start of the Christmas recess and after the final PMQs of the year was good timing.
The Cabinet reshuffle last week was memorable for all the wrong reasons: a wrong name was announced for Conservative Party Chairman before later being corrected, and two ministers refused to budge. But the electorate quickly forget such incidents. Changes made at CCHQ have been well received, and the new Party Chairman, Brandon Lewis, and his deputy, James Cleverly, will have a positive impact on the Tories’ campaign machinery.
The next twelve months will be unpredictable; there will be times when it looks as though the Brexit negotiations are breaking down, and the Government will suffer defeats in Parliament. In addition, the local elections in May could well deliver a series of heavy blows. However, there is not enough appetite in Westminster to reverse Brexit, meaning that key legislation on the UK’s departure from the EU will be passed. Trade negotiations with the EU will continue, a transitional period up to the end of 2020 is likely to be agreed, and the Party will hold together, albeit with the occasional shake and fracture. This will enable May to stay in place to see out the remainder of the Article 50 period.
Of course, the Prime Minister’s chances of survival are boosted by the lack of an obvious successor. Possible challengers will not want the job yet, given the immense complexities involved in delivering Brexit and keeping the Party united.
This does not mean that May will avoid significant challenges testing her resolve and capability. Further issues around the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland must be addressed in greater detail and a positive narrative around Brexit needs to be created and become part of the public discourse. If people see no change in real incomes and household budgets continue to be squeezed, then the prospect of a Labour Government could loom large.