The defiance, the determination, the sincerity; they were all genuine. But so was the common denominator of the question which blew like a sandstorm back in her face. Why a year? Why that long? (In fact, Prime Minister Theresa May has, constitutionally, until May 2020 before she would have to go to the country).
Puzzlement was, and remains, universal, if diverse. After the catastrophe that was Labour’s defeat by the Tories in Copeland – there is, whatever the apologists say, no other way to describe it – there were sighs of relief and disbelief on the Labour benches in both Houses. Phew! We’ve still got some time before the probable slaughter, so let’s make the best of it. Quite what that “best” entails remains open to argument.
There is a small number of Labour MPs who refuse to contemplate a positive way forward, not least, and especially, with Brexit destroying all they stand for in politics. They just want to put the agony, as they see it, of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership behind them. To be followed by what? There is no Plan B as long as there remains a relative difference in potential electoral success between those above and below a 5,000 vote majority. But the majority share the wonder of the Tories. Why, when she looks so unbeatable, does Theresa May rule out an early election?
Firstly, she does not share the view, most publicly vocalised by former Tory leader William Hague, that an early election (and annihilation of Labour) would be good for Britain “at home and abroad”. She has parked victory over Labour for a time of her choosing. Her battle, her totem in the political pantheon, is a successful Brexit deal between Britain and Europe. The Prime Minister is banking, though the chances are by no means clearly odds-on, being able to deliver a good trade framework, agreed on time and sufficient to heal divisions, and placate those with a preponderance to feel betrayed or just plain angry. That will be her own battle, fought and won, a symbol of her mettle. Only then will she turn her attention to a Labour Party she perceives to be historically holed below the water line and with a crew that will still be fighting for space in the lifeboats or deliberately or otherwise wanting to scuttle the project when battle is joined in domestic waters.
She saw what could happen in Labour’s northern “heartlands”, and had her taste whetted. In the biggest swing away from an Opposition party to a governing one in any by-election since Hull North in 1966 (and, incidentally, Harold Wilson’s landslide general election later that year). Tory support also rose in Stoke-on-Trent Central. In both cases UKIP was in disarray but the Tories showed they could split the Remainers and Brexiteer votes, winning Copeland by 44% to Labour’s 37% share.
The mood on the Labour benches, albeit generally in support of Jeremy Corbyn, has been more expletive-filled than hopeful. May pronounced that she wants to lead a Government that is “working for everyone in every part of the country” and talks of Labour being out of touch with the concerns of ordinary working people. What may be a genuinely held belief may equally be a cynical opportunity waiting down the road. Corbyn is unconvincing when he refers to “cumbersome” changes and not his leadership as the key factors behind the by-lectiona results. He calls for more time to wok out policies which arguably should already be there. A year may actually prove too short a time in politics.