PM survives first bout of battle for control

Theresa May leaving Downing Street Image copyright AFP

In the slightly sweaty committee corridor outside the meeting of Tory MPs tonight, MPs were queuing to praise the prime minister.

She had come prepared to own up to her mistakes, apologising to the gathered throng just as a few hours earlier she had apologised to the cabinet.

It had been her decision to call the election, and her leadership of the campaign that faltered and in what was described as the most human performance they had seen for quite some time, Theresa May said sorry, time and again.

"We saw the human being, not the Maybot"; "it was the first time in seven weeks she didn't say strong and stable"; more poignantly for the Tories MPs who commiserated with each other, "if she'd campaigned like that, we'd have won".

They were cheered, relieved perhaps, that she had, tonight, managed to pull it off, to show regret at the calamity her decision to go to the country had unleashed, relieved too that she rose to this particular occasion that seems likely to settle nerves enough to avoid the possibility of the party plunging into another leadership election and potentially therefore, another general election that they might lose.

The sense of immediate danger to her leadership has faded. But while her enemies are not breathing down her neck, they are still in the room.

One MP told me she wasn't asked any hard questions but deliberately took the time to take all of them, to show willing, "her strategy has been to take as many questions as exist".

It's like that episode of the West Wing where the Presidential Candidate Vinick was in deep trouble, so he took endless questions until the press finally got tired and went home - apologies if the American series isn't your thing, but it's an obsession of rather a lot of Westminster types.

'As long as you want me'

While publicly it is tonight the done thing for Tories to be fulsomely on the record praising the prime minister, privately it's hard to find a single MP who believes that she will take the party into the next general election.

It is, however, also very hard to find a single MP who wants to unleash even more potential chaos by triggering an election contest, let alone a general election.

But it's the circumstances, rather than newly discovered rapture, for the PM that have saved her.

One former cabinet minister told me "having a Tory prime minister is much more important than our own wound licking". Another minister told me in the medium term it is "hard to see how" the PM can stay.

Theresa May has survived the first bout of what will be a fight to stay in control. The election has redressed the balance, not just between the two main parties, but also between the Tory leader and her party.

And the PM knows it, most tellingly also saying to her MPs tonight, "I'll serve as long as you want me". Hardly a bold statement of a leader who feels they are in charge, but an acknowledgement that others will decide when their time is up.