Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, gestures while answering questions following a speech at Complesso Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

How Theresa May Keeps Surviving Profound Historic Losses

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- 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.

How Theresa May Keeps Surviving Profound Historic Losses

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 off a 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 mood of some Brexit-supporting Tories has hardened against May’s blueprint in recent days and talks in Brussels have taken a turn for the worse. The odds are still stacked against the prime minister. 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.

How Theresa May Keeps Surviving Profound Historic Losses

The prime minister had faced political demise even before the humiliating January defeat. On Dec. 12, 2018, after months of threats from pro-Brexit Tories to oust her, claiming she was betraying their vision of a clean break with the EU, the moment finally came: a formal vote of no confidence in her leadership of the Conservative Party. If she lost the secret ballot of all 317 Tory members of Parliament, she would be out as prime minister. She struck a desperate bargain with her colleagues. If they voted to keep her for now, she’d step down before the next general election. “In my heart, I would like to fight the next general election,” May told her party, but she conceded this wouldn’t be possible.

She won that vote, wounded and weakened. More than 1 in 3 Conservatives voted to get rid of her, and her promise to resign before the 2022 general election has led to a disastrous breakdown in discipline at the very top of the government that continues to haunt her to this day. In her cabinet, rival ministers jostle for position as potential leaders. The details of supposedly confidential meetings routinely leak to the press, as factions compete to get their version of events out first. And, though officials say they’re preparing the U.K. to crash out of the EU without a deal, insiders admit there’s no way the country will be ready on March 29.

She faced another threat on Jan. 16, the day after her historic defeat. The confrontation would, however, end in victory. The opposition Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, called a formal vote of no confidence in the government. Had May lost, her administration would have collapsed, potentially triggering a general election. But she turned for help to a man she’d fired, questioning his loyalty, when she became leader in 2016. Back in the cabinet as environment secretary, Michael Gove, an eloquent 51-year-old Scot, was given the job of rebutting Corbyn’s attacks. He delivered a barnstorming speech, savaging the Labour leader as a threat to national security who wanted to get rid of the U.K.’s nuclear weapons. Hundreds of Conservatives roared their approval on the benches. May was delighted and, in a rare sign of warmth—her nickname is the “Maybot”—patted her colleague vigorously on the back. The Tories who’d buried her Brexit pact 24 hours earlier backed her to carry on as prime minister. Corbyn had united them.

Still, she had to deal with Parliament rejecting her proposal and not saying what kind of divorce it preferred. In public, May said she wanted cross-party talks with Corbyn and others to find a compromise. Behind the scenes, she promised Conservatives she’d get her deal through with the votes of Tories and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up her minority government. She quietly encouraged senior Tories on both the pro- and anti-Brexit wings to start working on a plan to unite the warring factions. Kit Malthouse, a burly junior minister, gathered a group for secret meetings. Snacking on segments of citrus-flavored chocolate balls, a peculiarly English confection called Terry’s Chocolate Orange, the rival Tories overcame their divisions. They agreed on a blueprint that would come up with a technological solution to replace the most contentious part of the Brexit accord, the Irish backstop—a continuation of the EU’s customs-check-free passage at the U.K.’s land border with Ireland. Brexiters hate it because it would subject the U.K. to European rules indefinitely. Technology, Malthouse and others say, would circumvent that, keep commerce moving, and avoid the need for building border checkpoints and barriers.

May was unimpressed. When she met Malthouse the week of Jan. 21, she thanked him but concluded the plan wouldn’t work and walked out of the room. An agitated Parliament soon drew up proposals to take Brexit policy out of her hands in a vote on Jan. 29. May had to do something. So, on Jan. 28, she shifted her position yet again. Some 300 Tories packed a room inside Parliament to listen as she abandoned her own exit deal, throwing her weight behind a proposal by Tory MP Graham Brady to rip out the hated backstop. That amendment, however, was only feasible if the government seriously entertained Malthouse’s high-tech plan. She promised to look into the proposals she’d dismissed. The Brady amendment won, and May rejoiced. At last, the Tories were united behind a Brexit policy, and she had a clear message for Brussels: Parliament will accept this exit deal—just get rid of the backstop.

The EU howled. How could May have trashed a central part of the agreement she’d spent 18 months negotiating? The European Commission had warned May’s team not to back the Brady plan, because there was no way they could agree to ditch the backstop. May decided to shake up her team. She ordered Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general, to go to Brussels and reopen talks on alternatives to the backstop. Cox, a wealthy Brexit-supporting lawyer with a booming baritone voice, was seen as credible among euroskeptics, because he’d spent his time at the top of government leading the revolt against May’s deal from within her cabinet. Many Tories believe Cox’s verdict will be crucial. If he were to back the plan, the DUP and pro-Brexit Conservatives could, too. The rifts, however, are such that Cox now won’t tell the cabinet what he’s doing. He knows his colleagues can’t be trusted to keep information to themselves.

Then on Feb. 14—two weeks after May gained a new mandate to renegotiate her exit deal—Parliament voted to take it away again. Pro-Brexit Conservatives had flexed their muscle to prevent her from softening her position. They wanted to keep a hard Brexit as an option. May watched the result on television from inside her private parliamentary office, then left in a fury, storming out straight to her car. One member of Parliament said it was the angriest May had ever appeared. Inside Parliament, a fierce row broke out among the Tories. One minister was seen remonstrating with a Brexit-supporting Conservative rebel, who let fly a volley of abuse in response.

How Theresa May Keeps Surviving Profound Historic Losses

The Valentine’s Day defeat was illuminating for the EU, proof that there was no stable majority in the Commons for anything. It also was a turning point for May’s ministers who didn’t want a no-deal Brexit. Three of May’s most senior ministers decided to step in to force her their way. On Feb. 18 they marched into her Downing Street office. Led by Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, they told May that if she didn’t rule out a no-deal departure, they’d vote against her on Feb. 27, when Parliament was to consider Brexit options once more. May’s aides feared the three ministers could all quit at once, with as many as 20 junior ministers threatening to follow.

On Feb. 25, May was in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for an EU-League of Arab States summit. Over a breakfast of croissants, cheese, and coffee, German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked May about reports suggesting the prime minister could postpone Brexit. May replied that she didn’t want to extend the deadline, but the question wouldn’t go away. Back in London the next morning, May and her ministers sat around the cabinet table inside 10 Downing Street for what was the stormiest meeting of the year. Normally loyal ministers were enraged at the option of a delay, and even more furious with Rudd for pushing May into the move. May herself was said to be angry. But her team knew that offering Parliament a chance to delay Brexit would be the only way she could keep control of the process. And that was the compromise her team came up with—and Parliament backed—on Feb. 27: May would once again negotiate with Brussels for a revised deal, a quixotic quest, and if the Commons turned that down, then it could vote to delay the divorce and take a hard Brexit off the table.

Things are still uncertain. The threat of the U.K. leaving the EU with no deal on March 29 seems to have diminished, with an extended deadline a far likelier outcome. But May’s deal isn’t dead yet, because some of her fiercest euroskeptic critics could vote for it rather than let Brexit be delayed. In a March 4 note, Eurasia Group Ltd. Managing Director Mujtaba Rahman wrote, “Many of the 118 Conservative MPs who voted against it in January are ready to support the agreement in a crucial vote over the next two weeks.” The crucial question is will they be enough.

If May succeeds in passing a deal, it will be due in large measure to her stubborn refusal to give up. Her “sheer determination” and resilience under constant attack have won her the respect of the public over the past two years, according to Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis. May’s unwillingness to bend has also earned her grudging admiration among her peers. “There is a sense of exasperation and respect from colleagues in equal measure,” says Tory MP Keith Simpson. Her ex-director of communications, Katie Perrior, says, “People criticize her for being bland and vanilla in her approach, but maybe being all things to all people has been the only way to keep her deal still in play.”

And despite the pressure of Brexit, May hasn’t lost her sense of humor. After she survived the leadership challenge in December, her team prepared a celebration with wine and her favorite snack: potato chips. “I’ll be back in a minute,” May said on the way to meet the press. “Don’t eat all the crisps.”—With Robert Hutton and Ian Wishart

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Howard Chua-Eoan at hchuaeoan@bloomberg.net

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