Column yards have been written about Theresa May’s first year in office – miles more will no doubt be composed in the coming years. We all know the overview: she secured a dominant victory in the leadership race, laid out a socially radical platform, clarified Brexit and in so doing reunited her party after the referendum, called a snap election with a huge poll lead, fumbled the campaign, and lost her majority.
How the story will end is what’s really interesting. Is there any route for her to recover her reputation, and in so doing restore her leadership? I can’t think of any Prime Minister who has managed to radically change the public’s view of them once it has become settled. Or, rather, I can’t think of anyone who has managed to change their reputation for the better, at least – Tony Blair managed to wreck his by invading Iraq, and even that took some years to really take a toll (he still won in 2005).
Some, very rare, politicians have suffered disastrous harm to their public standing, only to return to greatness later on. Winston Churchill springs to mind – he was so personally identified with the failure in Gallipoli that he chose to serve on the Western Front rather than continue in ministerial office. He recovered, eventually, from pariah status to become a national hero. But his disaster, while serious, took place when he was in a lower office than that of Prime Minister, and it took even him more than 20 years to perform the feat of recovery.
So it’s hard to see how May could possibly end up serving more than the “few more years” that she asks for in today’s Sun.
That could perhaps be of benefit, given the task in hand. One concern about the implementation of Brexit was that the Prime Minister of the day might be too frightened to do it properly. It isn’t hard to imagine a George Osborne-type figure, always with one eye on the next election, fudging it in order to try to shore up one aspect of the vote or another, or to finesse their lines for future campaigns. If May is in the job for the duration of Brexit and not beyond, she could yet make a virtue of that immunity from future electoral concerns. Do the job, do it properly, soak up the flack in the national interest and leave – earlier than once dreamed of, but with a historic achievement on her record nonetheless.
She never intended to be a one-term Prime Minister. The voters chose that for her. She now has a choice to make about how to play the hand she has been dealt; if she embraces her fate wholeheartedly, for the good of the country, she still has a chance to influence how history will remember her.