And so Theresa May limps on — bruised, battered and with less authority than ever to enact any real policies, destined to serve only as a vehicle for delivering Brexit.
There is a sense that we’ve finally reached a tipping point this time. Yes, she’s survived, but the wounds from Wednesday’s no confidence vote, while not immediately fatal, appear impossible to fully recover from. When she does finally go — and we now know that her departure will be sooner rather than later — the sense of loss in the country may be keener than expected.
For there’s a paradox at the heart of Britons’ relationship with the woman who is still, for now, their prime minister. It is the times when she is at her weakest that they — grudgingly — seem to warm to her.
Having been widely derided as a “May-bot” during the last general election for her robotic media appearances and then, for not entirely unconnected reasons, going on to lose her majority in Parliament, many who’d mocked her for blowing an election she herself had called found themselves undergoing an unexpected change of heart.
Perhaps it was the cough — the calamitous tickle in her throat that struck as she was delivering her keynote speech at the 2017 Conservative Conference, making her words inaudible even as the set fell apart around her and a protester pranked her.
Somewhere along the line, the hostility — in some places, at least — turned to sympathy. The tone of the columns, on the left and right alike, grew less strident; the social media din was turned down a notch or two. But more important, out in the real world people began to speak of her with something approaching fondness. Over the last few months, as her ministers walked out on her, a narrative began to emerge of a determined woman remaining at the helm while those actually responsible for triggering Brexit — the flamboyant but flaky ex-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, the Donald Trump-ally Nigel Farage, the unreliable former-Brexit Secretary David Davis — abandoned ship when the waters got choppy. If, on radio phone-in programs, Mrs. May was still subjected to accusations of being a “modern-day Chamberlain,” she also received support from callers like Ellen, who lamented that “those people who started this all off have all walked away and left you to it and they just want to stand on the sidelines shouting.”
On Wednesday, at perhaps her lowest ebb, facing mutiny from her own side and an implacable impasse in her efforts to drive through her only major policy, a withdrawal agreement from the European Union, this same dynamic was apparent: A collective sigh of exasperation at the distraction that the Conservative infighting was posing at a time of national crisis.
The more angry her own members of Parliament grew at her swing away from a hard Brexit, the more sympathy she seemed to attract outside Westminster for the extra burden being placed on her by her own side at a time when she is shouldering the heaviest of loads.
Many seem to feel this way despite themselves: voters who have despised her Conservative Party all their lives, including, privately, a number of opposition Labour members of Parliament, admit to a grudging admiration for her calmness and stoicism in the face of extreme provocation — or if not that far, then at least empathy for the raw humiliation she’s endured over the past two years combined with, on occasion, appreciation of her willingness to take responsibility while others fled. (It helps that her internal opponents are, by contrast, largely unsympathetic: a lineup of pale, male, plummy-voiced toffs, encapsulated by Jacob Rees-Mogg, unofficial leader of the Tory Brexiteers, whose references to obscure dates in history and love of his “nanny” ceased to be charming to most ordinary voters about six months ago.) The most recent opinion poll by YouGov showed that a majority agree that no other Conservative leader would be able to negotiate a better Brexit deal.
There appears, however, to be little correlation between feelings toward Mrs. May in the country and those within her parliamentary party. In Wednesday’s secret ballot, more than a third of her party’s members of Parliament declared themselves opposed to her leadership, a bitter personal blow to anyone, let alone a politician who must now pick herself up, head to Europe and try to square the Brexit circle once again.
However much the British public may have developed a quiet respect for Mrs. May, it will do her little good in either Brussels or Westminster over the next few months. There was already a sense that her premiership, for all her ambitions to achieve something tangible on the domestic front, would always be defined by Brexit. On Wednesday, that became close to official: To win over waverers, she has been forced to promise that she will not lead them into the next general election, which is planned for 2022. In reality, in a country that prefers managed transitions, she now has little more than two years in office, and possibly substantially less.
This concession will have broken her heart. Mrs. May came to office vowing to break down the country’s remaining class barriers and introduce a level playing field. There was a specific pledge to help those who felt “left behind” or saw little for their hard work: the disenfranchised and undervalued.
That went out of the window within a year as the daily grind of trying to deliver Brexit sucked the energy out of British politics. For some time, she had clung to the hope that she could somehow survive Brexit relatively unscathed and spend the second half of her premiership building something she could call a legacy. Now she’s finally running out of road.
Rosa Prince is a freelance political journalist and author covering British and American politics. She is the author of the biography Theresa May: the Enigmatic Prime Minister.