Having tried to do so – this week’s ‘relaunch’ speech did not quell the doubts – she now needs to face up to another imponderable: What does she want her legacy as PM to be?
One year to the day after becoming Prime Minister with an uplifting speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street, and just a month after an ill-conceived election, Mrs May’s ‘strong and stable’ mantra is in ruins.
She’s only in office because of two factors. First, the Tories dare not risk another election while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – dismissed as unelectable – is changing the dynamics of politics with a left-wing crusade built on populism rather than financial logic. He’s also winning the political war being waged on social media.
Second, the Conservatives do not have a clear successor lined up. When names were put to activists, ‘none of the above’ came top, ahead of Brexit Secretary David Davis whose promise of loyalty has not been heeded by his supporters.
Tory MPs say Mrs May will do ‘for now’. Their endorsement is that lukewarm and it won’t take much for them to risk another election, and a Corbyn-led government having to implement Brexit, if it allows them the chance to regroup in opposition under a younger and more charismatic leader.
This will only change if Theresa May addresses the legacy question rather than allowing Harold Macmillan’s ‘events’ maxim to dictate her fate.
This means reverting to her initial instincts and offering a far more centrist approach, as she did to her credit 12 months ago and with this week’s announcement of a full inquiry into the decades-old blood contamination scandal, rather than dancing to the tune of the Tory party’s most ardent Eurosceptics.
Yet, perversely, she should not be afraid of failure. Quite the opposite. If her intentions are right, and her plans blocked by political opportunists, she must trust the public to see through this.
It’s why I believe that she should draw inspiration from Margaret Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ legislation – initially a Labour idea – and preside over a revolution in social housing. With the cost of borrowing at a record low, what is there to stop local councils, and housing bodies, being given the financial powers to build a new generation of homes for rent that can then be bought by first-time purchasers? I don’t mean a handful here and there, I mean tens of thousands.
Not only would it galvanise the economy, but it would be a clear commitment that the Tories are still the party of aspiration and the family – and that high-rise tower blocks, like the inferno-hit Grenfell Tower are not a socially acceptable housing policy in the 21st century.
Out of the ashes of a tragedy like no other could come a housing policy built to last if the Government prioritises those schemes, public and private, that truly favour young families, and with infrastructure to match.
If Mrs May is struggling for support, put it to a vote in the Commons. This is an investment in the future. It’s the same with the public sector pay cap. After seven years of austerity, it’s entirely reasonable to boost the wages of the emergency services, NHS staff and teachers. They are all critical to this country’s future prospects.
Yet, given that many newly-qualified doctors, nurses and teachers can only dream about owning a home, it adds strength to the belief that a far more radical approach to housing does, in fact, hold the key to Mrs May’s future, especially if the land prioritised for development is on redundant brownfield sites in the North.
However it’s not just about the public sector. The Prime Minister needs to remember there are many privately-employed people who are ‘just about managing’ – her refrain of 12 months ago. Where’s the big idea to help them?
And this brings me to Brexit. Theresa May should not be taking sole responsibility for the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union. Far from it. An overwhelming number of Tory and Labour MPs backed not only the referendum in June 2016, but also the triggering of Article 50 in March.
As such, it’s all the more perplexing that she’s not put in place a cross-party commission to protect this process from any more political upheaval. Not doing so is simply giving Labour, and her Tory opponents, licence to make mischief.
Can Theresa May survive? She’s certainly proved some wrong by getting a minority government off the ground.
Yet, while she will always rue being advised to call an election against her cautionary instincts, her best chance is probably taking another monumental gamble and risking all on building a transformative policy, like housing, that attempts to underpin Conservative values in a country which has never been more divided. Young strivers need hope. If not, her luck will run out very quickly and she will have no tangible legacy.