Theresa May, Facing Hard Deadline, Struggles to Navigate Treacherous Brexit Politics

LONDON—The woman charged with guiding the U.K. through its divorce from the European Union isn’t known for flashy political skills. Theresa May’s talks with EU leaders have been strained. She cuts a lonely figure at summits, standing alone as others chat amiably. In bilateral meetings, leaders have grown uncomfortable with her long silences and awkward manner.

What she is known for is determination and pragmatism, shown in how she emerged from the political chaos following the country’s 2016 Brexit referendum. She was hailed then as a leader who could cut four decades of ties with the EU, a bloc that represents half of all of Britain’s international trade.

Mrs. May “doggedly gets on with it,” said Sir Alan Duncan, a senior official in the foreign affairs ministry and a university friend. “She’s unemotional and just proceeds.”

The question now is whether this set of political skills is the right one to pull off one of the most complicated and difficult tasks in modern political history, separating the U.K. from the EU after 40 years of integration on trade, immigration, legal systems, travel and residence rights. It’s a task to be accomplished without benefit of a consensus among U.K. politicians, and by one who never favored Brexit in the first place—all in the teeth of an approaching March 2019 deadline.

EU leaders, worried about the U.K.’s unpreparedness for its exit, but determined to dissuade other member states from quitting the union, are disinclined to help the British premier out of a mess of the U.K’.s own making. Mrs. May’s efforts to persuade EU officials to back her Brexit plan at a summit two weeks ago drew open scorn.

Prime Minister Theresa May during an informal summit meeting of EU leaders in Salzburg, Austria, this month

Prime Minister Theresa May during an informal summit meeting of EU leaders in Salzburg, Austria, this month


Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Back home, her country and party are deeply divided on the way ahead. Mrs. May heads this week into a conference of her Conservative Party where she must put down a rebellion over her blueprint for future economic relations with the EU, led by a man who quit as foreign minister to protest that blueprint, Boris Johnson. Her precarious position in Parliament means a revolt by Tory lawmakers could lead to the rejection of any deal she manages to strike with the EU, posing the risk the U.K. exits the bloc with no arrangement on future relations.

The result is that just six months before the U.K. leaves the EU, nobody knows how it will happen. “We’re in a bit of a dangerous position,” said Nick Timothy, longtime former chief of staff to Mrs. May. “It feels like absolutely anything is possible, from staying in after all to departure without a deal in place and other options in between.”

Without a deal governing the U.K.’s ties with the 27 other members of the bloc, there could be serious immediate economic disruption with ports clogging with trucks awaiting customs clearance. EU countries uniformly are unready for a no-deal exit, an EU “stress test” of the members found.

In the longer term, the British economy could be smaller by 8% or more by 2030 than it otherwise would, according to a variety of official and private forecasts, and some regions of the country hit up to twice as hard. With politicians seeking to avoid looming economic turmoil, the possibilities might range from holding another election to postponing the exit to even having a second referendum.

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Even if Mrs. May navigates her country through Brexit, few expect her to survive as prime minister for long afterward.

Under Stress

British Prime Minster Theresa May’s net approval rating*

Cabinet meeting at Chequers; two members later quit

Vote costs May’s party a parliamentary majority

Cabinet meeting at Chequers; two members later quit

Vote costs May’s party a parliamentary majority

Cabinet meeting at Chequers; two members later quit

Vote costs May’s party a parliamentary majority

Cabinet meeting at Chequers; two members later quit

Vote costs May’s party a parliamentary majority

Mrs. May’s political career—motivated, says one close associate, by “a sense of duty, full stop”—would be sacrificed to deliver Brexit, a cause for which she was never enthusiastic. The differences between the EU and London run so deep that officials on both sides say the relationship between the two won’t be settled for years to come.

“The U.K. is in a trap after the decision of the people to leave the EU,” said Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras in an interview. “It’s a very difficult job for her.”

Mrs. May’s vision for Brexit was shaped largely by her stint from 2010 to 2016 as Home Secretary, overseeing immigration, policing and security. She won a reputation as a reserved leader with little appetite for the horse-trading and back-slapping that accompanies politics.

In 2013, Mrs. May withdrew Britain from more than 130 EU law-and-order measures. Then, after securing the necessary unanimous agreement of EU member states, she selectively opted back into 35 laws, including an EU-wide arrest warrant. But while other EU governments were ready to make such exceptions for Britain as an EU member, they have proved much less willing to do the same for a country negotiating to leave the club.

Mrs. May was also a central figure in an issue that may have tipped the Brexit referendum in favor of leaving the bloc: immigration. As migration to the U.K. from Eastern Europe surged in the 2000s, she pledged to cut annual net immigration to tens of thousands.

Just months before the June 2016 referendum, the government of then-Prime Minister David Cameron secured a new deal with the EU that would limit social benefits European immigrants receive in the U.K., a pact Mr. Cameron hoped would sway Britons to vote to remain in the EU.

Soon after, Mrs. May declared lukewarm support for Remain, although she also remarked that she didn’t “believe those that say the sky will fall in if we vote to leave.”

In the leadership race that followed the vote to leave and Mr. Cameron’s resignation, Mrs. May depicted herself as the no-nonsense leader the country needed. “I know I am not a showy politician,” she said. “I don’t go drinking in Parliament’s bars, I don’t often wear my heart on my sleeve. I just get on with the job in front of me.”

She soon sought to demonstrate to Brexit hard-liners that she was no counterrevolutionary. “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means,” she said, implicitly condemning fervent supporters of EU membership.

In a move that would later haunt her, Mrs. May also laid out nonnegotiable points for the looming talks with other EU members: The freedom of EU citizens to settle and work in the U.K. would end, as would the jurisdiction of the EU’s courts in Britain.

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The fall 2016 speech surprised EU officials. For them, ending the sway of the EU courts in the U.K. meant that Mrs. May had decided to leave the bloc’s single market—its zone of common regulation that speeds trade among EU members—in a so-called “hard Brexit.”

In response, she dispatched envoys to tell each EU leader she hadn’t decided on a hard line, nor to leave the EU’s single market.

The speech stating nonnegotiable points had been designed solely to shore up Mrs. May’s position in her party, said a senior official who was involved in government at the time. She was surprised on learning European how leaders had read it.

Yet in early 2017, she explicitly hardened her position, making it official policy to leave the single market and also the EU’s customs union, its arrangement that allows tariff-free trade inside the bloc and levies a unified set of tariffs on goods coming into it.

Mrs. May called a general election for June 2017 in a bid to increase her slender parliamentary majority. A stiff and impersonal campaign performance earned her the nickname “Maybot.” In a televised debate, she told a nurse concerned about stagnant wages, “There isn’t a magic money tree.” Her Conservative government lost its majority, forcing Mrs. May to lead a minority government.

After the setback, she backtracked on her tough Brexit approach, agreeing to the idea of a transition in which British-EU economic ties would remain unchanged until the end of 2020, provided the sides reached an overall agreement. That plan, however, upset anti-EU Tory lawmakers, who feared it would open the door to further concessions to the EU.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May in Brussels in June

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May in Brussels in June


Salerno/Euc/Ropi/Zuma Press

In her relations with other EU leaders, the British prime minister won some plaudits. In particular, she earned the respect of German Chancellor Angela Merkel for facing down Donald Trump. During a Group of 7 meeting in Canada in June, Mrs. May pushed back when the U.S. president threatened sanctions against a number of countries, including Germany, pointing at Mrs. Merkel as he spoke.

At another summit later in the summer, when Mr. Trump attacked the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the EU, Mrs. May told him both organizations were crucial for the interests of the U.S., said an official present at both meetings.

“She told Trump bluntly and in no uncertain terms that he was wrong about NATO as well as the EU,” a former British official said. Mrs. Merkel’s opinion of the British premier rose, said German officials.

This past summer, with the clock running down—and after the prime minister had asked her aides for analysis after analysis of her Brexit options—Mrs. May finally settled on a proposal for a framework of the U.K.’s future economic relations with the EU.

It was a plan she felt could win support both in the fractious Parliament and with other EU member states. It would keep Britain close to the EU in some areas, while cutting ties in others—the kind of cherry-picking London had long employed in its relations with Brussels.

The U.K. would accept the EU’s rule book for trade in products and agricultural goods with zero tariffs. In services, including London-based financial services, the U.K. would go its own way, thus losing its full access to Continental markets.

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The U.K. would also come to a special arrangement to collect customs duties for the EU, resolving sticky issues involving the Irish border and cross-channel supply chains.

Mrs. May convened her cabinet at Chequers, the Gothic-style retreat of British prime ministers outside London. It was made clear to ministers that if they quit in disagreement, their ministerial cars wouldn’t be available to take them home. She then detailed her 98-page plan, saying the state of negotiations and the difficult arithmetic in Parliament left it as the only option.

Theresa May’s cabinet discussed her Brexit plan at Chequers, the prime minister's country residence.

Theresa May’s cabinet discussed her Brexit plan at Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence.


Joel Rouse/Reuters

Mr. Johnson, her foreign secretary, assailed the plan as a betrayal of voters, according to people present. David Davis, Mrs. May’s minister in charge of Brexit, complained the plan would leave the country subject to the oversight of the European Court of Justice, which Mrs. May herself previously ruled out.

Within days, Messrs. Davis and Johnson had quit the cabinet. Mr. Johnson later described the Chequers plan as a “miserable permanent limbo.”

Mrs. May next had to persuade EU leaders to accept her Chequers proposal at a summit in Salzburg. Though the EU had scorned it, leaders worried she would face a leadership challenge, possibly as soon as this week’s Conservative Party conference. They were ready to offer her warm words that would help her shore up support at home.

Instead, in the event, Mrs. May irritated the EU leaders with a tone-deaf presentation of her plan. “She simply read out her statement,” said one senior European official, who added: “It could have been completely different if she would have adjusted the tone, and showed understanding that her proposals are not perfect, and invited the leaders to find a common ground.”

The European leaders roundly rejected Mrs. May’s plan as an effort to cherry-pick parts of EU membership it wanted to keep. Mr. Johnson once famously suggested Britain should have its cake and eat it too. European Commission President Donald Tusk mocked Mrs. May—who is diabetic—with an Instagram photo of him and the two of them gazing at a dessert tray. “A piece of cake, perhaps? Sorry, no cherries,” it read.

Mrs. May’s approval rating at home was just 30% in a recent poll. She faces a Conservative Party conference where opposition to her plan will be on full display. Mr. Johnson, who has referred to the plan a “suicide vest” around the U.K.’s neck, wrote a long column in the Daily Telegraph on Friday attacking Mrs. May’s leadership and dismissing her plan as one leaving Britain “half in, half out” of the EU. He will headline a splashy fringe event at the party conference to burnish his own leadership credentials.

Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, seen in the House of Commons in July, is a harsh critic of Prime Minister May’s Brexit plan.

Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, seen in the House of Commons in July, is a harsh critic of Prime Minister May’s Brexit plan.


AFP/Getty Images

Mrs. May “is first and foremost a pragmatist, she wants to survive—she will go with any deal that can be delivered,” said Mr. Davis, her former Brexit minister. “And she is afraid of a no-deal—with some reason…. Every bad thing that happens after March would be blamed on Brexit.”

Write to Bojan Pancevski at and to Will Horner at


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