How Theresa May pushed past defeat and carried on
Deep inside the oak-and-stone interior of Parliament, surrounded by dusty, leather-bound volumes of parliamentary records, Theresa May waited quietly for her fate. At 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 15, after almost two years of negotiations, the prime minister had finally put her Brexit deal to a vote in the House of Commons for members to accept or reject.
Some 201 of May’s allies came out in favor of the deal. But she was forced to watch as more than 430 others—including people she’d regarded as loyal—voted against it. The 230-vote defeat shocked even pessimists on her team. It was the worst loss for a British government in more than 100 years.
Even before the result was announced, some of May’s friends were in tears at the scale of the unfolding disaster. They knew her career was on the line—and the country’s economic stability in grave peril—as the prospect of leaving the European Union without an agreement loomed. Although clearly shaken, the prime minister was the calmest person in the room, consoling her distraught colleagues.
The meticulous May takes nothing for granted—even the certainty of losing an unwinnable vote. She had a victory speech prepared if, somehow, she defied the odds. It’s a measure of the 62-year-old Conservative Party leader’s addiction to methodical preparation that she was as ready for an unlikely triumph as she was for the inevitable failure.
It’s been two months since that historic loss. May’s premiership and her Brexit deal are still just clinging to life. She’s now preparing for a second attempt to persuade Parliament to back her deal, in a vote she’s promised to hold by March 12, and could even try a third time. Some of May’s officials believe she has a chance—albeit a slim one—of winning. If she succeeds, May will have pulled offa political miracle no recent prime minister can match. It would, however, be a victory won through missteps, inconsistencies, reversals, and luck as infighting pushed her to change course again and again.
Nothing is certain. The U.K. is due to leave the EU on March 29, with or without a deal. But Parliament could yet decide to delay the divorce or even back out of it altogether. Based on conversations with current and former ministers and officials on May’s team, many of whom asked not to be named, this is the inside story of how she’s maintained her fragile grip on power, and—through management both fortuitous and maladroit—brought her country within reach of the Brexit it voted for almost three years ago.
May is intensely private. She once confided that she hadn’t made a new friend since entering Parliament in 1997. The daughter of a vicar, she’s said she wanted to be in politics since age 12. May lost both parents when she was in her 20s and has spoken of her sadness that they never saw her elected to Parliament. The one constant in her life since then has been her husband, Philip, whom she met when they were undergraduates at Oxford. He’s her most important adviser and the only person she truly trusts. In their Downing Street apartment, the couple discuss every political question, from May’s cabinet appointments to her ill-fated decision to call a snap election in 2017.
Although she also takes advice from a tight circle of aides, May makes her decisions alone, often late at night. Even loyal senior ministers find it impossible to predict what she’ll do. Her two best qualities, all around her agree, are fortitude and perseverance. May, more than most leaders, has needed both.
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