Theresa May: Day of Decision

For the Telegraph by EDWINA CURRIE



Any Tory MPs with a sense of history will be thinking back today to the last time a woman Prime Minister faced the wrath of her colleagues in a leadership contest. If they've got any sense, they'll see that the implications are almost exactly the opposite now, compared with three decades ago.

Back then, when the rules were different (a single gauntlet was all that was needed), Margaret Thatcher faced two challenges. In 1989, as she became increasingly critical of the EU, the veteran Sir Anthony Meyer stood against her; he only got 33 votes. But in the following 12 months as the economy slid towards recession and interest rates rose over 15%, the Thatcherite revolution showed its nastier side. Michael Heseltine - and John Major - were waiting in the wings.

I was one of several MPs in the Midlands and north who went to see her, to persuade her that cutting interest rates and getting business moving again was essential. She treated us to a 45-minute rant about how our businesspeople were not making enough effort to be competitive. I came out seething, with, "I can't go home and tell them we're in trouble because they're not working hard enough." We heard sneers about how we were only interested in holding on to our seats. My response, to a colleague with a safe one, was, "Of course. And without ours, you don't have enough to form a government."

With the advent of the hated poll tax it became apparent that with Margaret in charge we would lose the next election. Labour would then reverse all the gains: trade union immunities would be restored, companies would be renationalised. If we wanted to keep Thatcherism, we had to get rid of Thatcher.

My guess is that Brexiteer MPs now are thinking that if they want to keep Brexit they have to get rid of May. They have this so wrong. Theresa May is leading the charge on Europe, and doing the best of a near impossible job, given the intransigence of Brussels. But as the negotiation is finished, no replacement PM could do better. Changing the occupant in No 10 would make no difference, except that the Conservative Party would be seen as perfidious and petty-minded. It wouldn't improve any of the realities, just waste a shedload of time.

And today's economy is in great shape. Record employment, record low unemployment (France's is twice as high), rising real wages. What would destroy these hard-won achievements? A Jeremy Corbyn victory, that's what. So colleagues today should reflect if that's what they want to encourage. This time, to avoid a future Labour victory, they should give Mrs May their rousing support.

After the vote, and the ritual banging of desks, Mrs May will carry on much as before. We'll get through Brexit in March, and breathe again. And we party members are watching closely to see who behaves well, who shows courage and strength, who deserves to fill her shoes, when the vacancy occurs.