EVERY political review of 2017 will begin with the words “if a week is a long time in politics, then a year must be a lifetime”.

Cast your mind back just 12 months. Last Christmas, Theresa May was 20 points ahead in the polls and a 17-seat majority inherited from David Cameron. Although she had her ambitious rivals, notably Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, she was a secure, safe pair of hands. She ruled out holding an election as she was getting on with the job of Brexit. Her government even appeared to have a sense of purpose beyond just leaving the EU. In her Downing Street speech of July 2016, when she took power, she spoke of governing for the “just managing families”, of a more caring austerity.

And 12 months ago, Labour was lost in opposition. It was led by Jeremy Corbyn who looked unelectable with the plunging polls showing his left-wing views were driving away voters.

Loading article content

But on April 13, there was an unheralded by-election in Coulby Newham to replace a Labour representative on Middlesbrough council. Fewer than 1,300 people voted, but by a slender 33 votes and with an eight per cent swing, they chose a young Conservative. It was the first time ever Coulby Newham had elected a Conservative, and it was the first time in 21 years that the Tories had won a Labour seat on Middlesbrough council.

On April 18, Mrs May called a surprise election. It was certainly a shock for Brenda of Bristol who mirrored the mood of the politics-fatigued nation when she exploded on the BBC: “You are joking! Not another one! For God’s sake!”

Mrs May’s move was deeply cynical, given that she had ruled an election out, but entirely understandable, given her lead in the polls. She had a once-in-a-generation chance to snuff out Labour – and if the Tories could steal a council seat from Labour in the deepest Boro, they could steal Parliamentary seats anywhere – which would enable her to negotiate a tough Brexit.

Parliament was dissolved on May 3, and on May 4, the Tees Valley went to the polls to elect its first mayor. Mirroring the mood of the nation at that moment, it was a surprise Conservative win by 51 per cent to 49 per cent.

On that showing, the Tories were heading for a Parliamentary landslide – Darlington and Bishop Auckland would fall along as well as the traditionally marginal Middlesbrough South. Little wonder that on day two of her campaign, Mrs May parked her lorries on Labour’s forecourt by visiting a truck depot in Darlington after Tynemouth – two totem Labour heartland seats she expected to win.

But the Darlington visit was odd. It was to an out-of-town hangar with no real voters in sight, letalone any interaction. And an interview with The Northern Echo, Mrs May coughed in embarrassment when she came to her “strong and stable” catchphrase.

That was day two. By day 32 of a campaign disrupted by terrorism, the nation had become heartily sick of that catchphrase – and failed to warm to Mrs May herself. She fought a presidential campaign which revolved around her, but apart from the catchphrase, had nothing new to offer, and when she U-turned on social care, she no longer looked like a safe pair of hands.

Plus Mr Corbyn, on closer inspection, was not quite the left-wing monster that the right-wing press had portrayed.

The result was not a defeat for Mrs May as she won 42.3 per cent of the vote – the Conservatives’ largest share since 1983. But she lost 13 seats, including James Wharton from Stockton South, and her majority and only retained power by giving a £1bn bung to the hardline Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland.

Her former colleague George Osborne cruelly said she was a dead woman walking, because she would never be able to stand again before the electorate as a party leader.

Her relaunch was supposed to be her September conference speech, but she fought against a failing voice while ignoring the P45 thrust in her face by a comedian and avoiding the letters falling off her stage set.

This speech has become a metaphor for Mrs May’s premiership. Did it show she was an accident-prone embarrassment who needed to be put out of her misery, or did she show extraordinary strength of purpose and a steely determination to press on regardless and get the job done?

The year’s events have left her government diminished – it is so diminished that when Chancellor Philip Hammond reached the end of his Budget, which downgraded British growth figures and showed we are now the slowest growing economy in Europe, it was hailed a triumph because nothing had gone wrong.

It is so diminished that it cannot push through any social reforms to improve the lot of the just-managings. It exists solely to Brexit – although Brexit is about taking back control, and the EU is in the driving seat.

However, as the year neared its end, Mrs May did flop over the finishing line of stage one of the Brexit negotiations. Along the way, she was humiliated by the DUP, dragged to Brussels bleary-eyed on a pre-dawn flight, and then slapped in the face by the mutineers on her own backbenches.

But she made it. Brexit is still alive, and although she is a dead woman walking, her premiership is also still alive.

Mrs May is proving to be amazingly thick-skinned and resilient. Today, there is no appetite in the country for an election, and there is no appetite in her party for a Boris takeover, while her possible caretaker replacements – Sir Michael Fallon and Damian Green – have been forced from office by their indiscretions.

She governs as she fought the election: alone. Her party is more split than ever but that, in a sense, is her strength: only she can hold it together. This means her government is weak but it is also strangely stable – it endures defeats, embarrassments and departures but it is soldiering on to get the Brexit job done.