British Prime Minister Theresa May is seeking to make a clean break with the leadership of her predecessor, David Cameron. Even as difficult Brexit negotiations loom, she hopes to draw on her past to reunite the United Kingdom.
By Christoph Scheuermann
In the middle of her most difficult week thus far as British prime minister, Theresa May steps into Westminster Abbey through a side entrance to pray. She’s wearing a blue dress from the British designer Amanda Wakeley beneath her overcoat, and a pair of black-and-pink pumps on her feet. It’s a relatively expensive ensemble. May is 1.72 meters (5’6″) tall and is by far the most elegant woman in the church. The gazes of the other worshippers follow her as she walks down the center aisle.
In the London house of worship, just a stone’s throw from Downing Street, the day’s service commemorates the abolition of the slave trade. The Archbishop of Canterbury has come and Princess Eugenie of York is to lay a wreath at the event. May is there to show her support for the fight against modern slavery — and these days, it is one of the few low-stress items on her agenda.
Recently, the bad news for May has been rolling in on an almost hourly basis. And most of it has to do with Brexit. Since the referendum, the British pound has lost almost a fifth of its value against the dollar while banks and large corporations are considering relocating outside the country. Moreover, the government is tangled in a judicial battle regarding the formalities of leaving the EU, which could delay the process. And the opposition is becoming feistier, with May suffering her first significant defeat in the lower house two weeks ago: Together with Conservative defectors, Labour was able to force May’s government to consult parliament more closely on Brexit.
To make matters even worse, it was revealed last week that just a few weeks before the Brexit referendum, May had issued a stern warning against leaving the European Union. “A lot of people will invest here in the UK because it is in Europe,” she said in a May 26 appearance at Goldman Sachs that was first reported on by the Guardian. Were Britain to leave the EU, she said, there is a danger that capital could shift out of the country. May’s critics see the statements as proof that the prime minister is much more pro-Europe than she admits — and that she is organizing Brexit against her will.
Then, as if she weren’t under enough pressure, the Resolution Foundation, a think tank, reported last week that leaving the EU would cost the British state 84 billion pounds (94 billion euros) over the next five years
Safe from Brexit
May reaches for the hymnal, Psalm 23. As the organ starts playing, she stands up and sings together with the others in the church: “In death’s dark veil I fear no ill. With thee, dear Lord, beside me. Thy rod and staff my comfort still. They cross before to guide me.”
Here, at least, beneath the crucifix, she is safe from Brexit. When she leaves Westminster Abbey an hour later, her steps reverberating as she strides through the Great West Door, she once again has a smile on her face.
It has been four months since the EU referendum and the political climate in Britain has become rougher. May’s government has played a significant role in the change. Home Secretary Amber Rudd sought to force British companies to create lists of non-British employees while Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants from other European countries only have job security until enough British personnel can be trained. In both instances, the government quickly reversed course following public outcry. But a veneer of xenophobia appears to have descended over the country.
It is likely to be a gloomy autumn. Britain isn’t totally sure exactly what Brexit means and whether it will be beneficial to all and Theresa May has thrown her weight behind those who prefer a so-called “hard Brexit.” She has said that she no longer wants the EU to have a say over the country’s immigration policies and that it’s time to revoke the power that judges in Brussels have over Britain. By charting such a course, she is risking harm to the British economy.
May’s view is that the British have decided to become a different country, one with fewer immigrants and less European influence. The voters, she believes, have decided to turn their backs on the country’s traditional partners on the Continent in the hopes that the world is waiting to embrace the British. Thus far, though, that doesn’t seem to be the case. At the recent EU summit in Brussels, the British prime minister was isolated. She can only begin negotiating a free trade agreement with Europe once Britain is no longer a member of the EU.
Part of the Adult World
May’s destiny is to be the woman who leads the British out of the European Union, faced with organizing a years-long process of separation and reorientation. But what’s driving her? And what will it mean for Europe and for the Brexit negotiations?
May was born the daughter of a vicar in Eastbourne, a town in the county of East Sussex on the southern coast of England. Both the church and the region remain significant influences on her today. With no siblings, she read a lot as a child and enjoyed engaging in discussions with her father, once telling the BBC that she became part of the world of adults at a very early age.
She began volunteering for the Tories when she was just 12 years old, stuffing envelopes and mailing off party brochures. The family moved several times, but her parents sought to avoid London. “Theresa was not to be a city girl when she was growing up,” wrote Virginia Blackburn in her recently published biography of May. Her parents died when she was in her mid-20s, her father in an automobile accident and her mother from multiple sclerosis.
The British prime minister isn’t fond of opening up about personal details. She did, though, once say that she likes to cook, owns more than 100 cookbooks and is a fan of cricket. Recently, she has begun talking more about the fact that she and her husband were unable to have children.
She has done so because the issue of her lack of children played a role in her fight for Downing Street. May’s primary adversary, the Brexit proponent Andrea Leadsom, said in an interview with the Times of London that, “as a mother,” she had an advantage over May. Because of her children, Leadsom suggested, she had more of a stake in the country’s future than her childless opponent. The article was headlined: “Being a mother gives me edge on May.” As so often, private lives had become a political issue and the incident shows that women too can hit below the belt. Those wanting to succeed in British politics have to have a hard shell — and be willing to go on the offensive in Westminster.
Winners and Losers
It is a place that has been dominated for centuries by alpha males, and largely still is. Margaret Thatcher held sufficient power and ruthlessness to keep her fractious cabinet in check for 11 years — and in this respect, the Iron Lady and Theresa May are similar. Both were hardened in a male-dominated political realm in which every debate knows only winners and losers.
But where Thatcher governed with implacability and defiance, May spends her nights working her way through dossiers in order to be better prepared than any of her ministers. She is, though, also able to play them off against each other. For example, she assigned three men to the EU negotiations who were at each other’s throats after just a few weeks: Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Brexit Secretary David Davis and Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox.
In contrast to many women who build a political career, the prime minister doesn’t try to hide her femininity. She wears leopard-print pumps with stiletto heels and two years ago, in the BBC radio show “Desert Island Discs,” she said that she would like a lifetime subscription to Vogue if she were stranded on an island. Seven members of her cabinet are women (Thatcher had just one). May didn’t enter the race as a feminist, but she has made it seem normal for women to hold political power.
Philip, her husband of 36 years, works in finance in London and May has referred to him as “my rock.” He has recently become more involved in their constituency and does what he can to support his wife.
The rise of Theresa May says a lot about recent changes to Britain’s political landscape. She began her career as a councillor in southern London, learning the ropes in local politics, and established a network of friends and allies that continues to help her to this day. Her current chief of staff, Fiona Hill, is among them as is Chris Grayling, a Euroskeptic who May appointed as secretary of state for transport. May’s self-image could hardly be more different from that of her predecessor David Cameron, a product of Eton. Once asked why he wanted to become prime minister, Cameron answered: “Because I think I’d be rather good at it.”