Theresa May’s ability to survive the summer has emboldened her to stay on in Downing Street and fight the next election. That, at least, is what is being read into the Prime Minister’s remarks during her trip to Japan that she is in it ‘for the long term’. In fact, while it might seem that another dose of mountain air has strengthened the PM’s resolve, little has changed about May’s plan for the future. And by saying that she isn’t quitting any time soon, the PM is just stating the obvious.
In the days after the election, Theresa May told MPs: I will serve as long as you want me. Despite the excitement now greeting her latest remarks, this remains her position. It’s true that she did answer ‘yes’ to the question of whether she wanted to lead her party into the next election. But this wasn’t a speech announcing that intention or a roadmap for a future manifesto; it was a half-second answer to a question – hardly the challenge to cabinet rivals that this is being presented as by some. In referring to ‘me and my government’, the PM is also trying to prove she knows that this isn’t the Theresa May show any more.
The PM is, too, doing her best to make it clear that she has learnt from the lesson of David Cameron. As soon as Cameron told the BBC’s James Landale he would not fight the next election, far from pouring water on the issue this opened up a whole raft of questions about a possible date and who might take over. The circumstances are very different this time, of course, but May is right not to name a date. The PM is also showing she is different from her predecessor in more ways than one. In saying she is not a quitter, she is also making an important point. Hague and Cameron both resigned on the morning of an adverse result – she’s made of sterner stuff.
Of course, May’s big problem remains her ability to look contrite. She made a bad situation worse on the steps of Downing Street on June 9th by insisting that in the face of all the evidence otherwise, nothing had changed. It’s true that May has since apologised to Tory MPs for the ‘mess’ she caused. But this was a mea culpa made behind closed doors, and the danger for the PM is that her latest remarks – rather than being seen as a desire to get on with the job – are taken as a refusal to face up to the situation. She’ll need to make it clear that she has indeed learnt her lesson in her Tory party conference speech in October. For now, though, far from being a battle cry for 2022, May’s comments about her future are little more than a repeat of what she has said before: that she will stay in Downing Street for as long as Tory MPs want her to.