Until 5pm this evening, the main news from Theresa May’s first trip to Africa as Prime Minister was that she isn’t much good at dancing – after she attempted to join in on a dance with school children in Cape Town. However, the Maybot has since managed to set the news agenda alight by telling hacks that when it comes to her premiership she is ‘in this for the long term’.
Asked by the accompanying press pack, whether it was still her intention to lead her feuding party into the next election, May said she was in it for the ‘long term’ – adding that her focus right now is on delivering ‘what the British people want’. Pressed on whether this meant she could fight Boris Johnson for the leadership of the Conservative party, May would only re-iterate that she was here for the ‘long term’.
So, what to read from the Prime Minister’s answers? In some ways, her comments are unsurprising. Had May not said she was in it for the long term, predictions of an incoming resignation would have dominated the news agenda. Notably, May only said what she had said previously – rather than giving the story new life with a new line. What’s more, her critics in the Tory party don’t seem overly worried by the comments: ‘She can say what she wants, it’s not up to her,’ one harrumphs.
As I said in the magazine last week, in the past month, there has been a significant shift in the mood in Downing Street. A number of May’s inner circle privately concede that her departure is not a matter of if but when. Although most Tory MPs still think that she should steer the party through the final stages of the Brexit agreement — if only to ensure Britain does actually leave — there is a growing consensus that her work will then be finished. ‘It’s very difficult to justify her existence past March,’ explains a normally loyal MP. Ministers who still stand behind her do so on a number of caveats. ‘If she doesn’t give a resignation timetable after Brexit, there will be moves against her,’ explains one cabinet minister.
But given that there isn’t much of a happy precedent when it comes to a prime minister pre-emptively announcing one’s exit, perhaps insisting one is in it for ‘the long term’ is the least worst option.