A Tense Victory for Theresa May, With a Humbling Concession

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Posted on: New York Times | November 13th, 2018
Author: Ellen Barry

LONDON — On Wednesday, finally, Theresa May raised her voice.

The British prime minister’s voice was hoarse and her face was pale, and who could blame her? Her two years of negotiations on exiting the European Union were a hair’s breadth from ending in a meltdown. Rebel Tories had called a no-confidence vote, forcing her to plead with her own lawmakers to give her more time. The promise she made in order to win the vote Wednesday night was a humiliating one: that she would step down as prime minister before the next election.

At the weekly Question Time in Parliament, she found someone she could take it out on. She leaned over the table toward the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and spat out her disdain for him. She was seething.

“All he wants to do is create chaos in our economy, division in our society and damage to our economy,” she said, raising her voice to be heard over the cheers from her backbenchers. And Mr. Corbyn raged back, accusing Mrs. May of leading her fractured country into a deepening, increasingly risky political crisis.

“Many people in this country find planning ahead impossible,” he yelled, “because all they see is chaos at the heart of this government!”

For many months, Mrs. May had maintained a robotic calm about the unraveling of her Brexit negotiation, pretending not to see that it was speeding toward a brick wall.

The pretense that all was well came to an end this week, when she abruptly canceled a parliamentary vote on her European Union withdrawal agreement rather than suffer a humiliating defeat. Now, not only was she facing a no-confidence vote, but enemies in her own party were so confident that they had set up a headquarters they called “The Kill Zone.”

To save her job, Mrs. May had two arguments to put forward. First, she argued, changing leaders so close to the March 29 deadline for withdrawal from the European Union could open the door to something worse — a Labour government or a reversal of Brexit.

“The British people want us to get on with it,” she said, not for the first time. “The Conservatives must not be a single-issue party. We are a party of the whole nation. Moderate, pragmatic, mainstream.”

The more important case was made at 5 p.m., behind the closed doors of a wood-paneled committee room, where Mrs. May promised Conservative lawmakers that she would step down before the next general election, currently scheduled for 2022.

Lawmakers who were present said she had invoked her long history as a party worker, going back to her teenage years, and confessed that “in my heart” she had truly hoped to run again. Tim Shipman, political editor of The Sunday Times, described “ministers crying in the room,” and George Freeman, a member of Parliament, described a “powerful and moving moment.”

Matt Hancock, cabinet secretary for health and social care, also described this promise as a turning point.

“There was a real warmth in the room,” he said. “There were some questions, but a real warmth toward her.”

But not everyone was moved. Lee Rowley, another lawmaker, told Mrs. May that “stamina is not a strategy,” according to journalists present.

Then they voted. Mrs. May won, but not comfortably. Two hundred lawmakers backed her, and 117 voted against.

At the announcement, the Tories jumped up and erupted into applause, but it was hardly a real success. Margaret Thatcher, who won 204 votes in a similar contest, was so weakened that she stepped down the following year.

Anand Menon, a professor of foreign affairs at King’s College London, said Mrs. May’s poor showing will complicate her efforts to find backing for her withdrawal agreement, which early this week appeared likely to be defeated by a crushing margin.

“The fact of the matter is that Theresa May is very unpopular,” Mr. Menon said. “There’s no doubt now of the strength of the feeling against her. That being said, she carries on. But she’s back where she left off with the Brexit deal.”

Mrs. May has long been known for her unruffled exterior, which earned her the nickname “the Ice Queen of Westminster.” Her approach to obstacles has been to ignore them. An aide once described Mrs. May holding a news conference in a basement room that was suddenly cast into pitch darkness by a power outage. Instead of pausing or even remarking on it, she simply called out “next question” and continued as if nothing had happened.

This was her approach on Wednesday, to plow on. Those looking for signs of fragility could spot only one, minor tell: Her husband, Philip, was in sitting in the gallery for Question Time, such an unusual occurrence that The Daily Mail covered it as a separate story, under the headline, “Husband Goals.”

The awkward timing of the leadership challenge, with a countdown ticking to the March 29 Brexit deadline, may have worked in her favor, some observers said. Its failure provides Mrs. May with a degree of protection, since according to Tory rules, rebel members can call a no-confidence vote only once a year.

“I think maybe there is a degree of emotional release that the moment has finally come,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “I think she was aware that this was a possibility for two or three weeks, and now that it’s happened at least things are out in the open and the battle can be joined.”

Moderation has been Mrs. May’s selling point the whole time. In the chaotic wake of the 2016 referendum, she offered herself to the country as a pair of “safe hands,” the epitome of old-fashioned, small-c conservatism in a time of turmoil. She had devoted much of her life to the Conservative Party, stuffing envelopes for party events as a teenager.

But upon taking power, she seemed perhaps a bit too old-fashioned for her country. The Conservative Party had barreled past her, embracing an anti-Europe agenda that had been dismissed for 20 years as too radical. Mrs. May was reflexively secretive about the progress of negotiations. She tried hard to win over Conservative hard-liners, but made little effort to win allies among Remainers and centrists. On Wednesday, facing her possible removal, Mrs. May did not even try to invoke loyalty, instead casting herself as the least-bad option.

“A change of leadership in the Conservative Party now will put our country’s future at risk and create uncertainty when we can least afford it,” she said, warning that a new Conservative leader would not be in place in time to exit the European Union on March 29. “And a leadership election,” she added, “would not change the fundamentals of the negotiation or the parliamentary arithmetic.”

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