THERE was a distinct spring in the step of Theresa May after the Prime Minister began her ‘make or break’ party conference speech with some dance moves to the sound of Abba’s Dancing Queen.
It was the human side to an under-fire premier that the country has been waiting to see. Self-deprecating in part, it was a speech which avoided the calamities of 12 months ago. It was confident in its delivery. It was centrist in its tone. And it was courageous as she tried to unite her party.
She certainly showed why she’s a serious politician for these times, rather than a stand-up comedian, and why any audition for TV’s Strictly Come Dancing deserves to be put on hold.
Yet, while Mrs May’s well-received speech will have struck a chord with all those who sympathise with her political predicament, the coming days and weeks will determine whether her own MPs stick by her – or get cold feet.
For, just as Mrs May was preparing to tell Tory activists that “the future is in our hands” over Brexit, James Duddridge, a little-known MP, was submitting a letter of no confidence in the PM’s leadership.
This is the same Mr Duddridge who, hours before, was unable to explain why he had not intervened earlier. Not only is his lack of leadership in complete contrast to the resilience of Mrs May when it comes to Brexit, national security or overhauling public services in an age of austerity, it also revealed the major flaw in the political strategy being pursued by some of the more diehard Brexiteers.
For if Mr Duddridge, and also the likes of Shipley MP Philip Davies who submitted his own letter in July, get their way, a leadership contest now would be so elongated that Brexit would effectively have to be put on hold because the Government – and the country – would be left in a vacuum and the Tories held in national contempt by voters for putting self-interest first.
Yet, with fractious colleagues like this, Mrs May couldn’t afford any slip-ups as she set out her own Brexit position and the importance of governing in the national interest. It was significant that she did not mention the word ‘Chequers’ – this speech appeared to be the start of a subtle rebranding exercise as the PM prepares for another crucial round of negotiations with her EU counterparts.
And while Brexit will come to define Mrs May’s premiership, her emphasis on certain domestic policies – particularly housing, healthcare and transport – was significant. Likewise, her desire for a socially inclusive country which stands up to all forms of intolerance.
This didn’t sound like a Prime Minister preparing to lose her job as she set out what security, freedom and opportunity means to her, and her country. The question is whether Tory MPs will give Theresa May the job security she needs to negotiate the UK’s freedom from the EU and create a new era of prosperity for all.
She deserves the chance to persevere, but with Parliamentary arithmetic and a hostile EU against her, Mrs May’s immediate future is still not in her own hands in spite of a defining speech that would, in normal times, have left Tories dancing to the tune of their leader.