LONDON — An iconic image of Theresa May was published on the front page of almost every London newspaper this week, as Britain waited for her to step down.
It showed her in the back of her car, her face pale and sheened with sweat, her eyes red-rimmed and watery. The image resonated because it was nearly identical to one taken of Margaret Thatcher in November of 1990, as a car whisked her away from her own resignation. “Tears in the Back Seat,” read the Daily Mirror’s headline, on both days.
The tears were notable because they were out of the ordinary. In two years and 10 months as prime minister, Mrs. May has made toughness into a personal brand, plowing forward even as her hopes of delivering Brexit faded. It became one of the central mysteries of British politics: What exactly would it take for Mrs. May to give up?
The answer became clear on Friday. Contemplating a fourth humiliating defeat in Parliament, abandoned by the last of her allies, Mrs. May at last concluded that she had exhausted every possible pathway to success. She said she would stand aside as leader of the Conservative Party on June 7, but remain as prime minister until a successor was chosen.
[Mrs. May’s departure is likely to set off a vicious contest to succeed her. Read more here.]
Her Brexit strategy has left the country in dire straits: Its populace is poisonously divided, its two venerable parties are gravely damaged, and her likely successors are pushing the hard-line fantasy of a no-deal exit.
She has to date served 1,044 days in office, one of the shortest tenures of any postwar prime minister, and her government has passed fewer pieces of legislation than any other in the last three decades.
As Mrs. May steps down in comprehensive defeat, it is in large part because she was slow to adjust to the political realities of Brexit. Though she ultimately made clear that she was not willing to lead the country into a no-deal exit, she did so only this spring, at the tail end of the process. Though she finally reached out beyond her own party, in hopes of cobbling together a coalition with Labour centrists, she did so tentatively, and too late.
“She missed her moment,” said Rosa Prince, the author of a biography of Mrs. May. “She just didn’t have the flexibility or insight to change course. She’s like a tanker that takes forever to change direction, and then can’t recalibrate when it’s clear the new course is fatal.”
Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University, was unsparing, calling Mrs. May’s time in office “a complete and utter waste, an exercise in futility.”
“She will be seen as one of the worst-performing prime ministers ever to occupy that office,” he said. “The idea that history will be kinder to her in the long run, I think, is for the birds. It’s something nice that we like to say about people when we feel sorry for them.”
This was not the way Mrs. May’s story was supposed to end.
On the heels of the 2016 referendum, she appealed, to many, as a safe pair of hands, a dutiful public servant who might be able to steer the country toward compromise. The daughter of a small-town vicar, Mrs. May seemed to hail from a simpler, more old-fashioned England. A political loner, she belonged to none of Westminster’s political camps, so was unlikely to be drawn into back-channel squabbles or conspiracy.
But in the years ahead, those virtues would prove to be her undoing.
At the outset of the negotiation, she accepted the assurances of leading Brexiteers that the negotiations would be easy, and, as a negotiating tool, declared that she was prepared to leave without a deal, said Chris Wilkins, who worked as her speechwriter and chief strategist for her first year in office.
“All of the rhetoric from the Brexiteers and from the Leave campaign, if you remember, it was about how easy it was going to be,” Mr. Wilkins said. “She was being told this isn’t going to be that complicated.”
It was during that time that she laid down a series of “red lines,” aiming to reassure Tory Brexiteers that she was on their side, that would fatally restrict her maneuvering room.
In a major policy speech in January 2017, she promised to break free of the European Union’s economic structures and to exit the European Court of Justice, and promised that, if necessary, she was ready to leave on March 29, 2019, with no agreement in place. That pledge — “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain” — was a victory for hard-line Brexiteers, bringing their thinking into the Tory mainstream.
“It was very important, and it wasn’t one speech; she said it consistently,” said John Redwood, an anti-Europe voice in Parliament for decades.
But Mr. Wilkins, who helped to write the speech, said little deliberation had gone into that line. At the time, he said, “I don’t think she thought no deal was ever going to be on the table.”
“That wasn’t done on the basis of a great deal of evidence,” he said. “It was done on the basis that this was something we had to say.”
Mrs. May made a difficult situation worse by calling a general election three years early, confident that she could secure a larger parliamentary majority that would smooth the path to Brexit. She proved a poor campaigner, the Conservative Party lost its narrow majority, and Mrs. May was forced to form a minority government with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.
After that, Mr. Wilkins said, Mrs. May’s team was focused on the everyday crisis of her political survival.
“She doesn’t think strategically,” he said. “It was all about how do I get through today and still be here tomorrow.”
Mrs. May’s tough talk, in the early stages of negotiation, set her up for a bitter falling out with Brexiteers in her own party. In the soaring rhetoric of the referendum, they had glossed over a stubborn problem: Leaving the European customs union, which eliminated tariff barriers on goods, would mean creating a physical border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, a member of the European Union.
Nearly two years would pass before Mrs. May made public her solution to the border conundrum. The so-called Irish backstop would keep the country inside a customs union — with Northern Ireland subject to additional European Union regulation — until a better solution was found, most likely new technology or another form of trading arrangement.
This compromise was reviled, by Remainers and Brexiteers alike, as the worst of both worlds, a Britain that was neither in, nor fully out, of the European Union. Brexiteers, in particular, felt that Mrs. May had abandoned her original commitments, and feared that Britain could be stuck in the backstop for years, obliged to abide by European rules but unable to cut its own trade deals.
Mrs. May appealed to the warring factions to let go of their passionate, polarized beliefs, telling Parliament late last year that “this argument has gone on long enough.”
“It is corrosive to our politics,” she said. “And life depends on compromise.”
But her reserves of trust in Parliament were exhausted, and her strategy of pressuring lawmakers by running down the clock backfired spectacularly. Mrs. May’s deal was defeated by historic margins, first by 230 votes in January and then by 149 votes in mid-March and by 58 votes two weeks later.
It was at this late stage, as the prospect of getting a deal through Parliament dwindled, that Mrs. May courted Labour votes by considering a softer Brexit.
“It was too late by the time she did it,” said Ayesha Hazarika, who was an adviser to the former Labour leader Ed Miliband. “If you’re going to compromise, it’s best to do it early on, when you have good will. Toward the end it was more like she was trying to save herself. Everyone could see that her power was ebbing away.”
She also made it clear, to her party and to the country, that she was not ready to guide Britain into a no-deal exit.
This was the result of a set of briefings presented to her around six months ago by the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, who laid out the political and economic consequences — including to the Conservative Party — of a sudden exit, Mr. Wilkins said.
“Since then, everything has been about excluding no-deal,” he said. “She is desperate to avoid it now. For the sake of the country, she now thinks it is the wrong thing to do.”
But as Mrs. May struggled to pass her deal, opinion among Conservative activists had been quietly shifting, from seeing a no-deal exit as a negotiating tactic to seeing it as a preferred outcome, the purest expression of the 2016 mandate.
Boris Johnson, favored by many to succeed Mrs. May, declared in January that a no-deal exit “is closest to what people actually voted for.” Nigel Farage, at the helm of the surging Brexit Party, rolled out the slogan “No deal, no problem.”
Her departure, as a result, nudges the country toward an outcome that she dreads.
“I think she changed her mind” on whether she could, in good conscience, accept a no-deal exit, Mr. Bale said. But it was too late.
“I think one of the tragedies is that by coining that slogan to whip up enthusiasm among the rank-and-file, and to pretend to the E.U. that she would walk away, she made it more likely,” he said. “By failing to get the Brexit she wanted, she made it more likely.”
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