British Prime Minister Theresa May began the year with a healthy majority in parliament, a commanding poll lead and an apparently unassailable grip on the Tory party. She ended it relying on the Democratic Unionist party to govern, with rebellion simmering among MPs on both wings of her party – yet doggedly insisting she is “getting on with the job”.
But 2018 will bring a fresh set of daunting challenges. First, and colouring everything else, is Brexit. The prime minister snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in December by securing the EU27’s agreement that “sufficient progress” has been reached to proceed to the next stage of negotiations.
But the deal came with a £35bn-plus price tag, and exposed tensions over Northern Ireland and its border with the Republic that have been parked, rather than resolved.
May’s cabinet held its first formal discussion of a potential future trade deal – the “end state” – in December, but little clarity is expected in the immediate future, with two rival camps vying to shape the debate.
Broadly, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Liam Fox, and their followers on the far reaches of the Tory backbenches, are “divergers”: they want Britain to “take back control” of laws and regulations.
Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd and other “aligners”, cheered on by pro-EU MPs, would prefer a closer continuing alliance, fearing the impact on economic stability of a more abrupt shift.
May’s studied ambiguity has kept these groups just about onside: she has suffered only one defeat in the Commons on Brexit , which for a government with no formal majority handling an issue of such divisiveness is a moderate success.
But as negotiations shift to the nature of the “end state”, holding her party together will become a growing challenge.
Matthew O’Toole, who was the chief press officer in Downing Street until just after the general election, agrees that keeping the Brexit big beasts on side will be tough.
May is also under pressure to rebuild her party’s pitch to the country.
Backbench rebellions on a series of issues, from universal credit to school funding, underline the extent of the Tories’ vulnerability to Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity message.
MPs want answers to their constituents’ concerns on spending cuts – and a broader vision of what a Conservative government is about.
In the New Year, May will also have to tackle controversial issues such as post-Brexit immigration, and some of her MPs fear she is hampered by timidity and her lack of a solid majority.
Meanwhile the prime minister’s every move is watched by a platoon of potential successors.
Local elections in May, including in London, will be a crucial test of the party’s support. But for the moment, May’s strongest protection is the resurgent Corbyn. Conservative MPs fear any new leader would be forced to seek their own electoral mandate – and might well not get it.
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