Even by the highly colorful standards of Britain’s great big Brexit mess, what looks like Prime Minister Theresa May’s final days in office are turning into a psychodrama without much precedence in modern British political history.
With lawmakers in her ruling party in open revolt, ministers resigning, and more threatening to do so, joining a long list of dozens who’ve quit in the past two years, a teary-eyed May seemed determined Thursday to try to eke out some more time in Downing Street.
She was accused by a former Conservative party leader of having shut herself in with the “sofa against the door.”
May refused to meet a trio of top ministers Wednesday, who were going to tell her either to resign or at the very least to drop the contentious Brexit withdrawal agreement she negotiated with Brussels, and which she’s trying to get parliament to approve next month for a fourth time following three previous heavy defeats.
Earlier this week, she re-introduced the deal, but added the possibility of Britain holding a second Brexit referendum to confirm that a majority still wants to leave the European Union. That was too much for Brexit hardliners in her party.
Her refusal to contemplate a customs union with the EU has enraged those in her party, as well as opposition politicians, who want to remain either in the bloc or closely tied to it. She is caught in a vice, as has been the case since last November when she finalized negotiations with the EU.
The resignation Wednesday of a senior cabinet member, Andrea Leadsom, a keen Brexiter, has triggered what looks like the final chapter for May.
Clinging to power
Conservative lawmakers were lining up for TV interviews Thursday to tell her by way of the broadcasters to quit, and preferably before polling stations close in European parliamentary elections. The ruling Conservatives look destined to suffer a drubbing in the polls — and possibly their worst electoral performance in their storied history.
But the pleas fell on deaf ears.
Britain has seen other prime ministers desperately cling to power when the writing was on the wall. Margaret Thatcher in 1990 sought to see off a challenge to her leadership but eventually gave in when her cabinet made clear it was time for her to go. The denouement took two weeks.
In 2010, Labour’s Gordon Brown squatted in Downing Street after leading his party to its worst general election result in decades, but eventually gave up after several tortured days.
Theresa May has clung to power since December, when she saw off narrowly a confidence vote by her rebellious lawmakers. Now it would appear, say party insiders, she’s run out of road. Even loyalists were urging her to go — if for no other reason than personal dignity.
“Her deal is dead but she is stubbornly playing for time,” said Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative leader.
For weeks now May has said she would be going soon and has repeatedly promised to announce a timetable for her departure. But she has not done so, preferring instead try to bend an unenthusiastic parliament to her will. She is convinced, her critics said, that her brinkmanship would be rewarded.
In more normal times in Britain a prime minister in such a political hole would have quit much earlier. But these are anything but normal times.
Brexit has rancorously divided the country and fractured political parties into quarrelsome unyielding factions. It also has upended a political rulebook better suited for more stable times. Long-established procedures and conventions have increasingly been cast aside as May, cabinet ministers and lawmakers, both Brexiters and those who are pro-EU, have battled desperately about how to part company with the bloc.
May’s tenure at Downing Street has witnessed a series of startling setbacks. She gambled in 2017 by calling a snap election, hoping to secure a larger majority for the Conservatives only to see Labour dash her hopes, leaving her heading a precariously positioned minority government.
She has drawn emphatic “red lines” with EU negotiators only to be forced to cave when confronted with firm resistance from Brussels or outrage from hardline Brexiters or Europhiles in her own party. And as the Brexit drama has unfolded, both she and the country have been drawn deeper into a political labyrinth.
Why has she persisted as prime minister? She certainly has stamina, despite battling diabetes 1. Grant Shapps, a former Conservative Party chairman who once tried to organize a coup against her, once noted she seems to thrive on danger and can operate when “it is fairly high on the scale.” He added: “she operates at the upper end of that scale almost every day of her life and, remarkably, walks out at the other end.”
Like Germany’s equally dogged leader Angela Merkel, May is the daughter of a clergyman, and she remains a devout church-goer. May has said that her Christian faith “is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things.” She has spoken glowingly of her father’s devotion and dutifulness to parishioners.
One of her favorite hymns is on the subject of Crucifixion, Isaac Watts’ “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” a canticle that embraces sacrifice and duty and rejects pride. Even her political foes have acknowledged her conscientiousness, but also say that has morphed into destructive stubbornness.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph on Thursday, commentator Sherelle Jacobs, argued May was determined to leave Downing Street with a legacy of success, saying that the clergyman’s daughter is “maddened by the scale of her failures.” She added: “The irony is that the more Mrs. May stubbornly fights for survival, the worse her record becomes.”
Few believe she can survive for much longer, and her foes are counting not the days but the hours.