LONDON — Over two extraordinary days in the raucous House of Commons last week, there were 1,265 ballots cast on the fate of Brexit and the prime minister who is struggling to deliver it.
And nothing changed.
Scholars of British politics cannot quite believe it. No leader before has ever survived such a parliamentary drubbing, described by many as “the worst in history.”
But May has. How?
Europe has long been a toxic issue for the Conservative Party, leading to the downfall of former prime ministers such as David Cameron, John Major and Margaret Thatcher. Brexit was always going to be a rough ride for any prime minister, Tory or Labour.
Though dealt a tough hand, May has not played the cards she does have well. She is famously secretive. She is not a natural builder of coalitions. She has told jockeying cabinet members, “I don’t do deals.”
And she has been poorly served by her communications skills. She’s never been able to explain, in plain English, complex and necessary Brexit trade-offs, such as the dreaded Irish “backstop” or the real-world costs of maintaining “frictionless trade” with Europe.
But she is tenacious.
“We know what her strength is, which is being indomitable,” said Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London. “But she has a bunker mentality, so the cabinet is left out of things. She has a tendency, seen in the last week, to govern as if she has a huge majority. But she doesn’t. She has failed to explain or persuade, which is why Parliament doesn't get her deal, because she’s never bothered to talk it through.”
As the House of Commons debated her fate, the Daily Express tabloid called May “valiant.”
“She is the cockroach in nuclear winter,” writer Tom Peck quipped in the Independent.
May’s struggles last week were driven by the deep divisions in May’s Conservative Party over Britain’s relationship with Europe. The Tories simply cannot agree which way they want to go — and all the brawling over May’s two-year trudge to leave the continental trading bloc has not been with the bureaucrats in Brussels, but among warring tribes of Conservative hard-liners and moderates, between the Leavers and Remainers in her own government.
And the reason May was not immediately sacked?
Nobody wants her job.
Or rather, everyone wants her job: Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt. They just don’t want it right now. They want it later. After. After May either muscles a version of her unloved, half-in, half-out compromise Brexit across the finish line — or fails spectacularly, and Brexit and Britain must be saved.
Conservative lawmaker Steve Double personified the split mind of Tories. When he stood to defend May during the no-confidence vote, he began by acknowledging that he was one of the 118 of 317 Conservative members of Parliament to vote against her deal. But he wanted her to keep at it and just do better.
“The prime minister has many qualities,” Double said, “and those qualities have come to the fore in recent times. People across the country admire her resilience, fortitude and determination.”
Double said he just wished May would apply that determination to getting a better deal from the Europeans.
Sounding more disappointed than cutthroat, Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, told Parliament, “I’m certain that every member of this House admires her resilience. To suffer the humiliations on a global stage that she has done would have finished off weaker people far sooner.”
“No one doubts her determination, which is generally an admirable quality,” Watson said. “But misapplied it can be toxic. And the cruelest truth of all is that she doesn’t possess the necessary skills, the political skills, the empathy, the ability and most crucially the policy to lead this country any longer.”
He said, “The country feels genuinely sorry for the prime minister. I feel sorry for the prime minister. But she cannot confuse pity with political legitimacy.”
The 62-year-old vicar’s daughter from home county England, who enjoys long hikes and a stiff whisky, would probably hate to be pitied.
A newly assertive Parliament demanded that May present her “Plan B” on Monday and tell the members how she will extricate Britain from Europe. Four days of talks with opposition members, and Tories who opposed her Brexit bill, do not appear to have broken the impasse.
One option may be for May to seek a bilateral treaty with Ireland that circumvents the European Union but prevents a hard border on the Irish island — which might win more approval for her exit plan.
But the chaos is likely to continue. The lead item in the Sunday Times of London was headlined “Theresa May in Brexit meltdown,” and suggested that the members of Parliament were plotting to “hijack” the agenda and force May to delay Brexit.
May served for six years as home secretary — essentially interior minister, in charge of domestic security and immigration — in Cameron’s government, always the outsider in a chummy cabinet filled with a posh set of private-school debating champs.
“I know I’m not a showy politician,” May said when she announced her bid to become prime minister in June 2016, when Cameron abruptly resignation after losing the Brexit referendum. “I don’t tour the television studios. I don’t gossip about people over lunch. I don’t go drinking in Parliament’s bars. I don’t often wear my heart on my sleeve. I just get on with the job in front of me.”
Last week was among the most tumultuous in the Conservative Party’s 184-year history — and that is squarely on May. She lost the vote on her Brexit deal by an eye-popping 230 votes, with more than a third of Tories joining the opposition to reject the withdrawal agreement she claimed was the best and only deal. The next day, Conservative lawmakers snapped back into formation and were unanimous in supporting May’s government in a no-confidence vote called by the leader of the opposition Labour Party.
Marcus Roberts, director of international projects at the YouGov polling agency, said when May became prime minister in the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum, there was “relief that there was an adult in the room, and the public seemed to respond positively to the strength and certainty that she offers them.”
Things started to sour in 2017, when May called a general election that she didn’t have to — and lost her government’s majority. May was robotic, out of touch, a poor campaigner.
Today, “voters admire her grit, her tenacity and her principled support of the deal she's negotiated. They like the way she is fighting for it, but there is a big caveat,” Roberts said, based on his interpretation of the polls. “Voters refuse to back the deal.”
“So they like her, even if they disagree with her,” Roberts said. “She still draws from a well of sympathy from voters that says that she isn't responsible for this.”
It is important here, to remember that May in 2016 campaigned to remain in the European Union.
“Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, they all win,” Roberts said. “But she is the cleanup crew, she is the one who has to sort it out. Even though this is her deal, voters still don’t consider this to be her mess, and that is a really interesting thing.”