The lure of legacy has led innumerable politicians and world leaders astray. Years of image control and carefully-calculated achievements can self-destruct after a single mistake. For all the domestic reforms of Tony Blair and David Cameron, they are, and will continue to be, remembered for lone miscalculations - the Iraq War and Brexit, respectively. Elsewhere, history skews positively. During his premiership, Clement Attlee was described as a ‘sheep in sheep’s clothing’, yet few would now challenge the respected legacy of the post-war prime minister.
Soon, Theresa May will join history’s halls, leaving us to speculate what shape her legacy will take. Many will no doubt endorse the current perception of failure, failure to unite the Conservative Party, failure to adequately deliver Brexit, failure to design a domestic policy agenda, and failure to be an inspiring world leader.
The vitriolic attacks on May and her premiership, however, ignore a simple reality. Despite over fifteen months of warnings that the collapse of the government was imminent, that May would be forced out by one of the many warring Tory factions, she still stands. May has weathered countless cabinet resignations, an Iannucci-esque party conference, all-but-losing a general election, ridicule from all sides for her Brexit strategy, and a sense of terminal decline for the Conservative Party, yet the attacks remain words in the wind.
The same is true for parliamentary votes. Despite chronic instability, May has suffered surprisingly few Commons defeats, squirming Brexit legislation through parliament even when the Lords and basic arithmetic were against her. It indicates an ability to manage. Not quite as far as forming consensus (almost nobody argues that that exists on the benches of the government), but satisfying all sides just enough, convincing each that they are getting the best deal, so as to achieve her ultimate goal.
Indeed, once the final destination of Brexit has passed, Britain can view May’s premiership with sufficient context. We will know the full extent to which Brexit was a poisoned chalice, an impossible situation which could never please everybody. It is possible that this will soften criticism of the government, equally, it is possible that this will only embolden it.
There is an argument to be made that May’s continued occupation of No. 10 Downing Street is less to do with her political abilities and more to do with her opponents’ political inabilities. But this ignores the fact that May could have caved to the pressure and walked away at any point over the last year. Stubbornness? Perhaps, but it paints the image of a somewhat antithetically invincible leader. She is not a Blair or a Thatcher, protected by their super-majorities. Instead, she is invincible in that it has become difficult to fathom what, after everything that has happened, could possibly bring her down.
A unique challenge is presented for Labour, therefore. Summer 2017’s sense of electoral inevitability has long since evaporated, displaced with uncertainty from all fronts. How does the opposition avoid repetition when the attack line of a prime minister constantly on the verge of resignation consistently fails to bear fruit? How can Labour possibly sustain momentum (pardon the pun) all the way through to 2022, if May continues to cling to power?
All politicians must act knowing the eyes of history watch dutifully, scanning for errors to record in the texts of tomorrow. Threats loom on the horizon, but on her current course, it’s entirely possible that May will see out the rest of her term, continuing to compromise and bargain her way to a fudged solution as she has done for so long. At some point, the fudge will become sickly, no doubt. But, for now, it is eminently plausible that history will not recall Theresa May as the weak leader of a divided government, but rather as the manager of a minority government who successfully saw off crisis after crisis and attacks from all ends.