Theresa May: Visionless, stubborn and indefatigable
May is in a stronger position than a year ago, but now faces perilous challenges
UK prime minister Theresa May (centre) sits with members of her cabinet on December 20th Photograph: Adrian Dennis/WPA Pool/Getty
When Theresa May sat down at the end of her last prime minister’s questions of the year on Wednesday, the Conservative benches behind her erupted in a loud display of tribal unity.
Their roars had nothing to do with May’s performance but were in response to Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged mouthing of the words “stupid woman” in reference to her.
Corbyn insisted that he said “stupid people”, referring to Tory backbenchers, and after an emergency debate that afternoon and a busy day for professional lip readers, the drama fizzled out. It was, however, a pleasing note on which to end the year for a prime minister who finds herself in a stronger position than she could have predicted when it started.
After winning last week’s confidence vote, May is immune from further challenge to her leadership of the Conservative party for 12 months. And she ends the year amid a temporary cessation of hostilities against her from the DUP and her own backbench Brexiteers.
The prime minister began 2018 with a cabinet reshuffle that served to highlight her diminished authority when a number of mid-ranking ministers refused to move.
Weakened by the catastrophic 2017 general election that saw the Conservatives lose their parliamentary authority, May was under constant threat from within her own party throughout 2018.
The prime minister’s weakness was a boon to Conservative Brexiteers led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who left her in no doubt that her fate was in their hands.
They cheered when she rejected the draft withdrawal agreement published by the EU in late February, which set out the details of the Northern Ireland backstop.
But the prime minister allowed the reality of Brexit to intrude a few days later when she acknowledged in a speech at London’s Mansion House that Britain faced hard choices about its future relationship with the EU and that leaving the single market would affect British business.
She had claimed in the past that Britain could have the “exact same benefits” in trade with the EU after Brexit as it does now.
In her Mansion House speech, she admitted that “life is going to be different. In certain ways, our access to each other’s markets will be less than it is now”.
May proposed varying levels of regulatory alignment with the EU for different sectors and a customs facilitation arrangement that fell short of a full customs union.
By June, she was proposing an alternative version of the backstop that would see the whole of the United Kingdom, rather than just Northern Ireland, remain in a customs union with the EU.
Brexiteers inside and outside cabinet held their fire while May saw off a rebellion from the pro-EU wing of her party over the EU withdrawal bill.
With her deal facing likely defeat, the prime minister rejects the idea of a second referendum, and a no-deal Brexit would be economically catastrophic
But in early July she retreated with her cabinet to her country residence at Chequers to agree a new plan for Britain’s future relationship with the EU that would see it remain in full regulatory alignment for goods and agriculture, with a customs arrangement which would treat Britain and the EU as “a common customs territory”.
Brexit secretary David Davis and foreign secretary Boris Johnson resigned in protest against the Chequers proposal, adding heft to the Brexiteer insurgency on the backbenches. If May was hoping for support from EU leaders, she got a rude awakening in September when they flatly rejected Chequers at a meeting in Salzburg.
Although the prime minister complained that she was ambushed at the meeting, she provoked the confrontation by telling the other leaders that Chequers was a take-it-or-leave-it offer rather than a first step towards a deal.
She would misjudge the EU 27 again at a summit in December when she told them to “keep nothing in reserve” in terms of concessions on the backstop. They told her they would not – and that the warm words in their formal conclusions was all she would get.
Divided and hostile
By December, May had agreed a withdrawal agreement and political declaration with the EU but was unable to secure a majority for it at Westminster. Facing almost certain defeat, she postponed a vote on the deal until mid-January while she sought “reassurances” from Brussels that the backstop would be temporary if it is used at all.
She survived the confidence vote in her leadership after promising to step down before the next election but more than a third of Conservative MPs voted against her.
Some cabinet ministers are openly canvassing for the leadership and others are speculating in public about alternative options if the Brexit deal is rejected in January.
May has promised Conservative backbenchers that she will win concessions from the EU on the backstop that will persuade the DUP to back the deal – a promise that appears to have no basis in the reality of what the EU is willing to offer.
With her deal facing likely defeat, the prime minister rejects the idea of a second referendum, and a no-deal Brexit would be economically catastrophic.
With no apparent way out, May trudges forward into 2019 at the head of a divided government and a hostile Parliament into the most perilous months in Britain’s post-war history, visionless, stubborn and indefatigable.