THERESA May does not come across as the type to send a prayer to the universe. That kind of thing is a bit cheesecloth and henna for a woman who likes her leather trews. A stiff gin is more the Prime Minister's measure. Perhaps she allowed herself a drink on Tuesday night, on the eve of the most important speech of her life. Yes, another one.

At least she might have comforted herself with the thought that whatever happened, nothing could be as bad as last year. Struggling to speak as her voice faded, coughing like a 60-a-day smoker, a prankster handing her a P45, and the set falling to bits around her, if it had been an episode of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em it would have been slated for going too far in the direction of improbability.

Yesterday would be different. Coming on stage to Dancing Queen? That was certainly different, and not in a good way. Only if she had entered half-cut and executed the Slosh could this have been a more watch-through-the-fingers moment. Still, at least she did not slip on a banana skin, attempt to manoeuvre a piano downstairs, and the ceiling did not fall in. That was about as high as the bar was set regarding delivering a better performance than last year.

To hear some commentators, though, Mrs May had suddenly been transformed into a cross between JFK and Cicero with a topping of Miranda. The best speech since she stood on the steps of Downing Street after winning the Tory leadership contest in summer 2016 seemed to be the consensus.

Hardly surprising, since it was more or less that speech repeated. Two years ago she spoke in praise of fairness, of equal chances for all. She addressed the just about managing, and promised them she was on their side, she was listening, she got it. But what happened next? Austerity remained, the just about managing were squeezed harder, and the only people she listened to were those who told her to cut and run in a snap General Election. Look how well that turned out.

Why should the public believe Mrs May “gets it” now any more than she did then? This was a speech full of dogs that did not bark, of things and people she refused, tellingly, to mention by name. The Chequers agreement was one. She did make reference to her Lancaster House speech, delivered in those happy days, only six months on from the EU referendum, when she could still count on the support of all her party. Then, all she had to do was set out the priorities the UK government would use to negotiate Brexit. First among these were “certainty and clarity”. No, don’t laugh. Was the omission of the word Chequers a signal that there was still some room for manoeuvre, for revisiting the agreement? Might there be a Chevening plan in the offing to replace Chequers? The other dog that did not bark was Boris Johnson, who a day earlier had launched a full blown leadership challenge without having the courage or courtesy to declare it as such. It was no surprise that she did not mention him. To her, and a lot of others besides, he is beneath contempt, not worth the breath it would take to say his name.

Yet as a leading representative of the fanatical Brexiters in her party, he poses a real and present danger to her remaining in Downing Street. Only that morning, one of her own MPs, James Duddridge, had been on radio telling Mrs May to get her coat. Come the afternoon, he topped this disloyalty with a letter to the 1922 committee of backbenchers calling for a leadership contest.

Instead of attacking her critics head on, she chose to threaten them with the only thing they care about more than sticking two fingers up to Brussels: keeping their jobs. The strongest part of Mrs May’s speech was the section attacking what she called “The Jeremy Corbyn Party”. She praised the essential decency and vision of Labour politicians such as Attlee, Gaitskell, Callaghan, Castle, Healy and John Smith. Neil Kinnock got a mention, too (no Tony Blair, of course). “What has befallen Labour is a national tragedy,” she said.

It was an astonishing plug for the enemy without, as opposed to within, but it served her purpose, which was to pose as a unifier. “Even if we do not all agree on every part of this proposal,” she said, “we need to come together. Because it’s time we faced up to what is at risk.”

The first risk was Mr Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. The second was there being no Brexit at all, either as a result of a second referendum or some other means. She was uniting her party behind an attack on Labour to distract her colleagues from ditching her. In calling up the ghosts and giants of Labour past she was trying to unite the country against the spectre of a future Corbyn government. Distract, deflect, survive.

If she had the luxury of time, it is a strategy that might even stand a chance of working. Back me, or get Corbyn. Back me to protect jobs, avoid costly checks, protect the the seamless border in Northern Ireland. Back me, or get no Brexit at all.

But Mrs May is no longer that new PM, standing on the steps of Downing Street. The old songs will not do. Here we are, only a week away from the European Commission’s formal response to the Chequers plan. Judging by her last ugly encounter with the EU 27, it is not looking hopeful, and there was nothing in her speech yesterday that will have changed minds on the Continent.

She ended her address as she began, trying to put her best foot forward. I wonder if whoever suggested the sunlit uplands as a destination was familiar with John Major’s selection on Desert Island Discs when he appeared on the radio show months before the General Election of 1992. His final choice of record was Sinatra singing The Best is Yet to Come.

For Mr Major, it was, and yet it was not. He won the election that April, but he lost 40 seats, cutting his majority from 102 to 21 and leaving him vulnerable to the anti-EU fanatics on his backbenches. The era of the bastards, his word, not mine, was only just beginning. I fear Mrs May is fast approaching the same spot.