PLENTY RIDING ON MAY’S GAMBIT FOR BREXIT
SHE has survived scandals, losing majority government, mass Cabinet resignations and an attempted coup by Tory rebels. Her Conservative government has been found guilty of contempt of Parliament for the first time in UK history. But on Tuesday, Prime Minister Theresa May will face the greatest challenge yet to her survival when the Parliament votes on whether to endorse her plan for exiting the European Union. The vote on the deal comes amid rising public fears. Reports this week tell of people stockpiling food and medicine among concerns of blockages at ports and other access points next year when the break is activated. While every sign points to the deal being voted down, by what margin is unclear. What is clear is next week is shaping up to be a monumental one, which could end with a Brexit deal; a snap general election; a second referendum; a no-deal, off-thecliff-edge Brexit; or even a new prime minister. May, 62, has until Tuesday to convince hostile MPs that her Brexit deal is the best they’re going to get. “We should not let the search for the perfect Brexit prevent a good Brexit that delivers for the British people,” she said this week. So heroically lacking in charisma that she’s known as the Maybot, May has eschewed any phony charm offensive and instead gone for pure pragmatism, urging MPs to “do their duty” and deliver the result the people chose in 2016 when they voted, narrowly, to leave the EU. Dr Tom Quinn, a senior lecturer in government at the University of Essex, says next week looms for May as “the most serious threat to her premiership to date”. “It is hard to see how she survives the fall of a deal in which she has invested so much political capital,” Quinn tells Insight. “It is not yet clear what the Plan B is if May’s deal fails, but whatever it is, it would almost certainly need a new prime minister to advocate it.”
Britain’s first female prime minister since the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, May won the Tory party leadership in 2016 after David Cameron quit in response to the Brexit referendum result.
Her rival, Andrea Leadsom, stood aside after a newspaper interview where she intimated she would make a better leader than May because May didn’t have children. (May has spoken of her sadness that she and husband Phillip May were unable to conceive.)
She had voted Remain, although professed to being a “Eurosceptic”, and the price of winning the Tory leadership was the job of trying to manage the UK’s divorce from the EU after 45 years.
Untangling the tens of thousands of laws and regulations which keep the UK bound to the 27 other countries of the bloc has brought her to the brink of political oblivion numerous times. Her latest deal, which legal advice shows would potentially tie the UK to the EU “indefinitely” through a backstop, has succeeded in uniting Brexiteer and Remainer MPs against her.
But May has continued to fight for the plan and is spending five days in the House of Commons pleading her case, talking economy, trade, financial markets, immigration, and always appealing to the head and not the heart. It’s how she’s spent her entire career.
The only child of an Anglican Church vicar and a housewife, Theresa Mary Brasier was born on October 1, 1956, in Eastbourne in Sussex, a bright child who later went to Oxford University to study geography.
It was there she met her future husband, fellow student Phillip May, after their mutual friend, future Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, introduced them at a dance. Phillip May later said it was “love at first sight”.
They married in 1980 and have been inseparable for the past 38 years. She refers to her financier husband as her rock.
She was orphaned at the age of 25 when her parents died a few months apart – her father in a car accident, and her mother from multiple sclerosis.
Like her husband, she enjoyed a successful career in finance and entered politics in 1997 when she first won her seat of Maidenhead in wealthy west Berkshire, west of London, where her constituents include disgraced Australian children’s entertainer Rolf Harris, and the residents of the Queen’s weekend home, Windsor Castle.
She was famously quoted in 2002 as saying, as the first female chairman of the Conservative Party, they must no longer be known as the “Nasty Party”.
She doesn’t network with other politicians or drink with them, and had to be pushed hard in a media interview to reveal the “naughtiest” thing she ever did. “I mean, you know, there are times when … I have to confess, when me and my friend, sort of, used to run through the fields of wheat,” she eventually admitted.
“The farmers weren’t too pleased about that.”
It is precisely this lack of drama, the sense of “keep calm and carry on” British resilience that has won her admirers in recent weeks.
“She doesn’t emote in the way of many contemporary politicians and she can certainly appear a bit stiff,” Quinn says.
“She is not in any way charismatic. On the other hand, there is a strong sense that many ordinary voters, whatever they think of May’s policies and government, admire her resilience and perseverance despite all the brickbats thrown at her.”
The brickbats will certainly fly on Tuesday when May’s deal goes before the Commons.
Labour has threatened a vote of no-confidence if the deal fails – as it almost certainly will.
However, it seems unlikely all the Tories who vote against the deal – and their Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party minority government partners – would then be complicit in bringing down the prime minister.
Quinn says the margin of defeat will be the key to what happens next: “If it is a heavy defeat – say, over 100 votes – it will look very difficult to resurrect the deal or anything similar to it.”
He says while there is talk of sending May back to Brussels to seek minor changes in the event of a narrow defeat, such an outcome is unlikely. And anyway, the EU has already said this is the best they can offer.
“If May’s deal is heavily defeated next week, it is very difficult to see how she can continue as prime minister,” he says. “She might tender her resignation or face a confidence vote among Conservative MPs.
“Some believe that it might ultimately come down to a choice between ‘leave without a deal’ or a second referendum.
“But before we reach that point, an early general election (under a new Conservative leader) would probably take place, with each party seeking a mandate for its own preferred way forward.”
NO DEAL: Prime Minister Theresa May is facing a tough course to deliver a workable exit from the EU; Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn holds his own hard line; pro-Brexit demonstrators outside Parliament this week. Pictures: AFP