Jon Craig: Theresa May’s team are right - 2017 really was quite a year
And there's a good chance that 2018 will be equally eventful.
Minutes before Parliament rose for Christmas, a member of Theresa May’s inner circle signed wearily and said: “It’s been quite a year.” After a pause, this insider added: “We’re still here!” It suggests there were moments during 2017 when the prime minister and her team feared they might not survive until Christmas.
Many have not survived, however. In a huge end-of-year blow to the PM, the most senior member of her inner circle, Damian Green, suddenly isn’t there any more. After he was cut adrift by No. 10 and sacked after lying about porn allegations, Downing Street even appeared to question whether he should accept his £16,500 pay-off. It was a matter for him to choose whether or not to receive it, said No. 10 coldly.
Green has joined ex-cabinet ministers Sir Michael Fallon and Priti Patel and former No. 10 joint chiefs of staff Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy on the casualty list in a year dominated by an election blunder and now sex scandals.
To be fair, the modest and unassuming Green never expected to rise so high in Theresa May’s government. But then he probably wasn’t expecting to fall so spectacularly either.
I can reveal that when his old university friend became prime minister last year, Green was expecting to become secretary of state for culture, media and sport. He was a former TV journalist, his father had been a journalist too – editor of the Reading Evening Post – and he seemed ideally qualified for the job.
But when she was handing out the Cabinet jobs and asked Stephen Crabb, already in trouble over inappropriate texting, if there were more embarrassing disclosures to come out, he said: “I don’t know.” So she told Crabb he’d better return to the back benches. And then she sent for her old and trusted friend and gave him a much bigger job than she’d planned, in work and pensions.
And a year later, after her general election blunder, when she needed a trusted ally to be her deputy prime minister in all but name, we shouldn’t have been surprised that she sent for Damian once again.
Now 2017 has ended with her old friend becoming by far the biggest casualty of the ‘sexminster’ scandal, which at least has provided light relief from dreary old Brexit for political correspondents.
Until nearly 9pm on the night before parliament broke up for Christmas, the prime minister appeared well set to end the year in better shape politically than at any time since the election disaster in June.
The word most often used to describe May in 2017 has been “resilient”. Back in the ‘90s, when John Major was going through tough times, his spokesman used to say his mood was “resolute”. Both words describe a prime minister battling against one crisis after another. And there’s an obvious parallel between these two Tory premiers: It’s Europe that’s ripping the Conservative Party apart in both cases.
There was a wonderful irony during the seemingly interminable EU (Withdrawal) Bill’s eight-day committee stage, as the two wings of the Tory party fought each other. The same old MPs who were the leading Maastricht rebels – Sir Bill Cash, Iain Duncan Smith and Bernard Jenkin – are now spearheading the campaign for a “hard Brexit” on the back benches. And Ken Clarke, one of John Major’s leading Cabinet allies and chancellor of the exchequer in the ‘90s, now finds himself leading the Remainer rebels on the Tory backbenches.
One big difference between Major’s Maastricht warfare of the ‘90s and May’s Brexit battles of 2017 is that she lacks big hitters like Clarke and Michael Heseltine in her cabinet. Green was loyal – and no doubt will remain so on the back benches – but he was no Michael Heseltine. And Philip Hammond, May’s chancellor, is no Ken Clarke when it comes to a political scrap with rebel MPs.
Tony Blair had hard-hitting Cabinet enforcers, too, like David Blunkett and John Reid. But the top Tory who could have been an effective enforcer for May, William Hague, has bowed out and is adamant that he won’t return.
The defining moment of 2017 came the day after Easter Monday when the PM stunned Westminster by announcing that, despite repeating endlessly that she wouldn’t call an election, she did. Gloomy Labour MPs thought they were heading for disaster under Jeremy Corbyn. May’s gamble looked a good bet at the time. But a series of Tory blunders and an inspiring campaign by Corbyn changed everything.
Here’s a confident prediction for 2018 and beyond: a serving prime minister will never again hide from TV debates. The Tories also need to consult more widely on their manifesto in future. And when you’re aiming to fight an election attacking the Opposition’s economic policies, it makes no sense to lock the chancellor in a cupboard – “not quite in a cupboard”, Hammond said later – for the campaign.
With hindsight, we should have realised Corbyn was going to pull off a shock result during the campaign. When he was drawing massive crowds at his rallies, we should have guessed something was up. After the election, though, the Labour leader was accused of getting carried away. It must have been the heady atmosphere – or something wafting in the air – at Glastonbury, that persuaded him to predict he’d be PM by Christmas.
Perhaps it was the “Oh… Jeremy Corbyn” song that has now become an anthem for his devoted, adoring supporters at Momentum rallies. He’s a cult figure now. At least I think cult is what they call him! Now Corbyn is predicting he’ll be PM during 2018. Really? Someone should tell him how resilient the current occupant of Number 10 has become. It used to be said that Jeremy Corbyn clings on, obviously. Now it’s being said about Theresa May, not him.
As well as the month or so after the general election debacle, the other perilous period for the PM was after her disaster at the Tory conference. But fortunately for her, coup leader Grant Shapps was a hopeless plotter.
In the midst of the sex scandals and losing Fallon and Patel from her Cabinet, Theresa May’s rugged determination to secure a Brexit deal in Brussels – and her ability to survive on just two hours sleep before her Brexit breakfast with Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier - paid off.
I’m not convinced by Jeremy Corbyn’s prediction of a general election in 2018. And such is my admiration for Theresa May’s resilience in the face of adversity and setback after setback that I believe she could confound those predicting her demise and still be in No. 10 in 12 months’ time.
Yes, 2017 certainly has been quite a year. But it has taught us that politics is now so unpredictable that there’s every chance that 2018 may be quite a year too.
Jon Craig is chief political correspondent at Sky News.