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Opinion Why Theresa May is a great prime minister

British Prime Minister Theresa May attends a commemoration marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Amiens, held at the Amiens Cathedral, in Amiens, France, on Aug. 8. (Sebastien Courdji/Pool via Reuters)
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Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Theresa May is the world’s most underrated leader.

On its face, such a statement seems preposterous. Early on in her tenure as British prime minister, she committed a massive political blunder by calling an unnecessary election that ended up destroying the Tories’ majority in Parliament and reducing her political clout. Her version of Brexit has left most people disappointed. Neither has she scored stellar domestic successes, solved Britain’s housing crisis or forged a strong relationship with the United States’ mercurial president, Donald Trump. While May sometimes elicits sympathy, hardly anyone seems wholeheartedly enthused by her leadership.

Yet May continues to defy the predictions of her imminent political demise, marching unscathed from one lukewarm compromise to the next. Thus far, she’s successfully steered British Conservatives away from their destructive fantasies about Brexit to a settlement that is compatible with life in the 21st century, in the European Union’s immediate vicinity. If the Brexit “dream is dying,” as former foreign secretary Boris Johnson stated in his resignation letter, that is a good thing — an indication that a reality-based perspective is reasserting itself instead.

The key to May’s genius is that she was handed an impossible brief. It is immaterial whether she was for or against leaving the E.U. ahead of the 2016 referendum. What matters is that the version of Brexit sold by Leavers to British voters was a delusion. And if Britain’s departure from the E.U. ends up being a benign, incremental adjustment instead of a sudden break creating legal and political uncertainty and massive trade barriers, much of the credit will go to May.

The likes of Johnson wanted to reclaim British sovereignty over domestic regulation, immigration and trade policy — while also preserving all the benefits of frictionless commerce that Britain derives from being a part of the E.U.’s single market. “Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market,” Daniel Hannan reassured voters in 2015.

Of course, the E.U. would not have any of this. To enjoy the benefits of single-market membership in trade in goods or services, Brussels expects countries to abide by European rules, not come up with their own. Furthermore, from the E.U.’s perspective, the “four freedoms” — of movement of goods, services, capital and people — on which the single market is based are indivisible.

To be sure, that was always a political call on the E.U.’s part, not a logical necessity. But unlike hard-line Brexiteers, May understood early on that the E.U. was not going to budge on that point.

Brexit hard-liners such as Johnson, David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg might not like the gradual softening of Britain’s position, but they offer no viable alternative — other than simply crashing out of the E.U. As a result, they will continue to derive a greater political payoff in kibitzing from the sidelines than in either attacking May directly, or in rallying explicitly behind her.

May has thus successfully twisted the arms of Tory backbenchers on a number of issues. Britain will honor its financial commitment to the E.U. budget. During the “implementation” period, the rights of E.U. nationals arriving in Britain will be guaranteed, and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice will carry weight in legal decisions affecting E.U. nationals.

The question of the Irish border might seem the most challenging. May has pushed for a compromise that will allow Northern Ireland to remain in “full alignment” with the E.U. single market and customs union rules in order to ensure no hard border on the island. Lest a hard border run through the Irish Sea, the same rules will have to be applied across the United Kingdom as well, making post-Brexit Britain look much like the status quo. Adding insult to injury — at least if the past is any indication — Brexiteers might end up acquiescing to such an arrangement, although not without bitter complaints.

As long as the architects of Brexit can avoid taking responsibility by blaming the lackluster outcome on sabotage by “Remoaners” or the intransigence of Brussels, May will continue to soldier on. She’s betting that the country will at some point tire of Brexit and that a settlement will be reached that most Britons will be able to live with, allowing Britain to move on to other subjects.

If she can pull off that feat, she is bound to go down in history as one of the greatest prime ministers of our time and the epitome of the authentic brand of conservatism — prudent, cautious and incremental — championed by the great British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott.

This cautious disposition stands in sharp contrast to the zero-sum zeal endemic to self-styled conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic. More importantly, it serves as a reminder of what democratic politics is supposed to be like: the art of forging compromises that most people can live with (sometimes unenthusiastically). The Western world could do a whole lot worse than to emulate that approach.