Richard North, 13/12/2018  

Yesterday morning, the "ultras" were pretty chipper, certain that there was going to be a vote of confidence and that they were going to win it, kicking Theresa May out of office. And some of the potential candidates were already lining up with their pitches.

But it was not to be. The evening saw Mrs May emerge with a majority, 200 votes to 117, in favour of her staying confounding the predictions and leaving the "ultras" without their moment of glory. Now, they're too late. From her own party, the prime minister is safe from further challenge for a year. By then it will be all over.

Given the way the events have played out, a cynic might even suggest that Mrs May set this up herself. Delaying the vote was stage one, provoking the "ultras" into making their move. And who is to say that Mrs May herself didn't put her own letter in – or get some of the faithful to help out – just to make certain there were enough to get the ball rolling.

With or without Mrs May's help, phase two is over. It has cost the prime minister a pledge that it is not her "intention" to lead the party at the next election, but that was a minor concession that can always be overturned if needs must. Intentions can always change. As the song goes, she's just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, she will doubtless say, please don't let me be misunderstood.

In return, the ERG have shot their bolt. The best two former Brexit secretaries, Dominic Raab and David Davis could come up with was an opaque re-write of the Irish Protocol, bearing the grandiose title A Better Deal, cobbled together by Shanker "Snake Oil" Singham and friends, loosely endorsed by the DUP's Arlene Foster.

But if that was the best they had to offer, it was not nearly enough. The indigestible prose was never going to capture the hearts and minds of the lobby hacks, and even the wonks would have to work really hard to get a glimmer of insight into Mr Singham's fading genius.

His star, of course, is not the only one on the wane. As the result of the vote of confidence came through, it was clear that Mr "Oaf" Johnson's leadership ambitions are over. Despite claims that he is the most likely candidate to succeed Mrs May ahead of the next general election, that is entirely unconvincing.

If a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity. In the twelve months before another challenge can be mounted, we will be out of the EU (after a fashion), heavily into the transition period. Johnson's unique selling point will be long gone.

None of the others are going to get a look in either. This is the palace coup that failed – organised by a bunch of political second-raters who have been outsmarted by the vicar's daughter so comprehensively that they didn't even see her coming.

Nor is the game-play over. There's stage three to come today, when Mrs May jets off to Brussels. Donald Tusk has been very accommodating. He has arranged a special session of the Brexit Council for the EU-27 but is giving the prime minister the opportunity "at the end of the afternoon session" to deliver her "assessment". The "colleagues" will then "discuss the matter and adopt relevant conclusions".

We'll have to wait to see whether Mrs May brings back a piece of paper to wave at the crowd, but one assumes she will have something to keep the media busy over the weekend. She might even give Andrew Marr a try-out on Sunday.

By tradition, after attending a European Council, the prime minister reports to the House on the following Monday. That gives Mrs May the floor on 17 December, where she can set out her "achievements" in the certain knowledge that the ERG will lack the credibility to challenge her from the back benches.

As to its leader, Mr Rees-Mogg, he has nowhere to go, but back to his constituency. His brief rain is over – his capacity to rain on Mrs May's parade is seriously curtailed. Yet, even now, he lacks the self-awareness to realise that, as far as he is concerned, it is "game over".

Mr Mogg will, of course, not be alone in making his lonely trip back to his constituency. Parliament closes down for its Christmas break on 20 December, and does not reconvene until 7 January – nearly three weeks of radio silence for the Muppet Show.

Instead of grandstanding for YouTube and the adoring audience of the Westminster claque, the MPs will have the uncomfortable experience of re-acquainting themselves with real people – voters, party members, and constituency officials. Many are less than impressed with the pantomime and are far more sympathetic to Mrs May than the media circus might suggest.

According to a recent poll, she still has the support of the majority of the nation, with 40 percent of electors backing her, against 34 percent who wanted her to go.

It probably is not a coincidence that the leadership vote has been brought to a head just before Christmas. We might call the holiday another deliberative phase. We can't give it a number yet – there may be others tucked in by the time we get there.

Anyhow, by the time the MPs get back from their break, they will be a more subdued lot. And, no doubt, businesses and others will have been working hard to point up the dire consequences of a "no deal" Brexit – both publicly and through contacts at constituency level. With the ERG effectively silenced, reality may well start to focus minds.

By mid-January, therefore, the scene will be set for the deferred vote to be re-instated. And if Mrs May does win it, there is every likelihood that it will be a close-run thing. But it no longer looks impossible, as it was doing last week. Even in political terms, that week has been a long time.

For those who maybe think that recent events are mere fortuitous coincidence, favouring the former home secretary, others might argue that this is a return to form that has been singularly lacking since she embarked on the Brexit process.

But, as a smooth operator on the international stage, there is little to compare with the way Mrs May handled the introduction of gay marriage into the UK in what was described by Booker in 2013 as a "brilliant political coup" – to this day scarcely recognised for what it was.

Needless to say, Mrs May has a long way to go before she makes her version of Brexit happen, if at all, but there is not a single high profile political commentator in this country who predicted that Mrs May would be the one to be enjoying a relaxing Christmas in less than a fortnight.

Against all expectations of a week ago, she has come away with 63 percent of the vote of the parliamentary party. No one will need any reminding that the EU referendum was won on 52 percent. And if a third of the party voted against her, the victory she delivered is sufficient unto the day.

And even if the chatterati see her as "damaged" by the scale of the rebellion. Some have even suggested that she is the worst prime minister since Lord North (which doesn't say a lot for Corbyn as leader of the opposition).

The truth is, though, that she has staged a miraculous recovery that puts Lazarus to shame. She is still there, in Downing Street. Others - notably Mr Johnson – are not. And now, they never will be. If she never achieves anything else, to have kept the oaf out of office is an achievement indeed. But the greater prize is yet to come. It will be Mrs May who will be leading us out of the EU.

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