Carl Court/Getty Images
Ever since the General Election last year – which the Prime Minister should never have called – Theresa May has been subject to an avalanche of disdain. The political journalists interviewing her can scarcely contain their contempt. Well, she is not alone in that as our last three Prime Ministers, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, are all held in various levels of contempt. It goes with the job.
Do you remember that after last year’s election it was thought Theresa May couldn’t form a Government? But she did. Could she get the Queen’s Speech through? Could she get Article 50 through? Could she survive the Tory Party Conference? Could she unlock the negotiating stalemate before Christmas? Could she get the European Repeal Bill through the House of Commons? She did all of it and they were the essential steps for the good government of the country.
And now in the early days of 2018 can Theresa May match the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn with an appeal to the voters? Yes, she can do that as well. The latest opinion polls have given the Tories a lead of 4% over Labour. Being a woman has helped, because the people who seem to be drifting away from Corbyn seem to be women voters.
Faced with a constant barrage of vituperation and wounding comments some politicians would have just given up. Not Theresa May, even though she always had an easy exit available, given her diabetes which could be a reason for an honourable exit.
But she has stayed on because she has a sense of duty, that perhaps comes from her being a vicar’s daughter. She believes it is her duty to do what the British public voted for in the referendum, which was the biggest engagement of democracy in our history.
Still, this year started with much negative tittle-tattle and speculation about a new leader, and the Tory candidates were preening themselves. I suspect that in reviewing the candidates’ list the country may well take the view, “None of the Above” and in time look for a fresh new talent.
The leadership speculation only revealed how divided the Party is between the Remainers and the Brexiteers. That being the case, in my view over the next year Theresa May will be the only person who can be trusted to hold these two groups together. She knows all too well that a divided party will be doomed and a leadership election any time over the next year would have a devastating effect upon the Conservative Party.
Theresa May has set as her target that on 29 March 2019 Britain will leave the European Union: that is the real historic change because it will set us on a path that is different from the one we have been following over the last fifty years. To ensure that the House of Commons does not derail this, some compromises may have to be made along the way. But none will derail the fact that we have left the European Union.
Handling a government with no overall majority – depending on a minor party – requires great political skill. Take the Cabinet reshuffle for example. Many observers wanted her to be much more radical and remove more people from the Cabinet, but she knew that everyone who left would be very disgruntled and annoyed. They could make her life much more difficult. She knew that in the case of the one amendment to the European Bill that was lost in the Commons by 11 votes – 7 votes came from MPs who had been sacked as ministers.
In such circumstances, a leadership election would be suicidal folly. The Tories should now back Theresa May and recognise that she is going to lead Britain to that exit on the 29th March 2019 – the real game changer. If enough Tory MPs do ask the Chairman of the 1922 Committee for a leadership election it would be proof positive that my party has earned the old epithet of ‘Conservatives being the stupid Party’.
Lord Baker of Dorking is a former Education Secretary, Home Secretary and chairman of the Conservative Party.