Theresa May is weak – but she’s still stronger than her critics

As a rule, a politician who announces “I’m not a quitter” is not in a strong place. When Theresa May said those words in Japan this week, for instance, the mind quickly turned to Richard Nixon. “I have never been a quitter,” Nixon told the American people in a televised address. The address in question was the one in which he announced his resignation as president in 1974.

History is full of hubris and hostages to fortune from leaders who think they can go on longer than is wise. “This is only the third term we are asking for … I hope to go on and on,” said Margaret Thatcher in 1987. But she didn’t. “I’m starting a job that I mean to continue,” Gordon Brown announced in 2008. He didn’t either. Both Tony Blair in 2004 and David Cameron in 2015 found that pre-election pledges to serve another five years but no further collapsed under pressure. The truth is that a lame duck is a lame duck.

Perhaps the prime minister should simply have refused to discuss the matter. That’s easy to say from the sidelines. It would certainly have meant different headlines this week. But it would not have been credible, after the loss of authority May inflicted on herself in the general election. The question was already out there. It will not go away. It will be one of the issues dominating the Tory party conference in October.

So it’s a question May had to address. She did so in what were, surely, the only viable terms she could. There was no alternative for her. She obviously had to say she wasn’t a quitter rather than that she was. She had to say she was in the job for the long term not for the short. None of that, however, meant that these claims are entirely true.

May’s situation is particular, not generic. In many respects she is in the weakest position of any prime minister of the modern era. It is hard to think of any British leader since Anthony Eden after Suez whose hold on the office is less secure. She has lost an election that she need never have called. Her failings have been ruthlessly exposed. Her party is divided and has no special loyalty to or affection for her. And her signature policy, Brexit, is in disarray and going nowhere.

And yet, in another sense, May is surprisingly secure. She could be a long-lived lame duck if she is skilful about it. The principal reason for this is simply that her party cannot agree who would make things better. The overwhelming reason for that is Brexit. It is always worth remembering that, if she had not given an unguarded interview to the Times in July last year at Milton Keynes railway station, Andrea Leadsom might well be prime minister today, elected by the party’s predominantly Eurosceptic Tory grassroots.

Paradoxically, that electoral system is now one of May’s strongest weapons. The fear that the party grassroots might elect Leadsom, Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg – lunatic risks that would, at a stroke, cut the Tory party off from large sensible swaths of the nation – is one of her defensive shields. But it is matched and buttressed by the Tory party’s fear of a Jeremy Corbyn government. A Tory leadership election would not only hasten demands for a general election. It would also split the party in ways that made a Labour victory even more likely.

May did actually think about quitting in the early hours following the general election. Once she and her advisers realised that the absence of a clear alternative meant she was, in fact, strong enough to hang on, albeit badly wounded, she has followed a strategy of achieving short-term goals: getting through to the Queen’s speech vote, surviving until the recess, and keeping quiet through the summer. Each goal has been reached.

But the fact she has nearly made it through the first three months after the election debacle does not mean she is out of the woods. Her judgment has been exposed in the election and over Brexit. Her weakness is real. And each of those short-term goals is overshadowed by the party conference in Manchester starting on 1 October. In recent decades, even Tory conferences have become little more than well-controlled rallies of and for the faithful. But the usual leader worship rings much hollower after an election defeat. So, with divisions simmering over Brexit, and with her would-be successors all aiming to make their mark, May will not sleep easily until the conference is well and truly over.

In fact, the threat to May in Manchester comes at least as much from Brexit as it comes from the struggle over the succession. May needs the conference to remain united behind her over the kind of Brexit she is pursuing. She can’t afford to have the right or the left of the party making charges of betrayal. If that happens, control of the conference will slip out of her hands and into those of the press and the fringes. And unless she is careful, so may her hold on the leadership.

That is surely part of the reason – in my view a very large part of it – why the Brexit aims still appear so opaque and why, as Michel Barnier made clear today in Brussels, things are going very slowly. That is because it is in the Tory leader’s interests. May cannot afford to commit to anything specific with the EU until after the Tory conference, especially if that involves compromises on payments, citizens’ rights, the single market or Ireland – some of which are surely inevitable. That would risk mayhem in Manchester. As so often in modern British history, Britain’s interests in Europe are being held hostage by the problems of managing the Tory party.

Back in 1969 Harold Wilson told Labour party plotters: “I know what’s going. I’m going on. And the Labour government’s going on.” Wilson was right about the first, wrong about the second. He lost the next election but he went on to win two others and to retire at a moment of his own choosing.

Though she is in much weaker position than he was, May’s message in 2017 is essentially a Tory version of Wilson’s in 1969. She’s going on. Last year, in Birmingham, May delivered her party conference speech against a backdrop that proclaimed “A country that works for everyone.

This year in Manchester, if she needs a theme that can unite her troubled party for a while longer, she should speak against one that says: “Better a lame duck than a loon or a leftie.”