LONDON—For more than two years, British Prime Minister Theresa May has had to balance European Union negotiators, an opposition Labour Party intent on toppling her government, and dozens of rebellious parliamentary colleagues. So when she vowed on Wednesday to fight a no-confidence vote against her “with everything I’ve got,” it was par for the course.
May has earned a reputation for soldiering on in the face of innumerable crises and for maintaining stability not because of her strength, but in spite of her lack of it.
On Wednesday night, that stability proved enduring. With the support of 200 lawmakers within her Conservative Party, May avoided an attempt to end her tenure as the party’s leader—and with it, her premiership. The outcome was a two-tier victory of sorts for the prime minister: Not only did she garner enough support to continue fighting for her proposed Brexit deal, but she also secured immunity from further such leadership challenges in the foreseeable future. Under Conservative Party rules, May cannot face another no-confidence vote for another year.
That May has survived this long is due in large part to Brexit. Throughout the negotiations, she has framed herself as the only one capable of delivering on the result of the referendum to leave the EU by negotiating a deal that is in the country’s national interest.
Speaking outside Downing Street on Wednesday morning, May warned that a leadership challenge just months before Britain is due to leave the bloc wouldn’t overcome the parliamentary deadlock that prompted her to call off a key vote on her proposed Brexit deal earlier this week, nor would it ensure Britain’s timely exit at the end of March. “Weeks spent tearing ourselves apart will only create more division just as we should be standing together to serve our country,” May said of a potential leadership contest to replace her. “None of that would be in the national interest.”
But her survival is also emblematic of her dogged resilience in the face of what has seemingly been a perpetual state of crisis. From the loss of her party’s governing majority after an ill-fated general election in 2017 to the slew of cabinet resignations and parliamentary deadlocks that have rocked her government since, profound weakness—yet surprising stability—has come to define her premiership.
And while her resilience hasn’t necessarily translated into national popularity, it has won her a grudging respect among political friends and foes alike. Tony Blair, the former Labour prime minister, described May as “a pretty reasonable person surrounded by a lot of unreasonable people.” Sarah Vine, a Daily Mail columnist whose husband, Michael Gove, was a one-time leadership rival to May, praised the prime minister for showing “true grit” in the face of Brexit’s challenges.
European leaders have been similarly sympathetic. “People have consistently underestimated the mettle and courage of Prime Minister May,” Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said last month of her handling of the Irish border issue, which remains a point of contention for ardent Brexiteers. European Council President Donald Tusk, who was among the fiercest critics of May’s so-called Chequers deal for Brexit, said he was nonetheless a “true admirer” of the prime minister.
“It’s hard not to admire her doggedness,” Sam Stopp, a former Labour councilor in London, told me. “Whether you agree with her or not, I think most people in the country seem to think that whatever her flaws, she is genuinely trying to do the right thing and cares passionately about public service. People admire that.”
Goodwill alone isn’t the only reason May is still standing. Crucial to her survival thus far has been that there is no clear favorite within the Conservative Party to replace her, let alone one with a viable alternative to her Brexit proposal. Stopp said even if there were such a leader, they likely wouldn’t want to succeed May now.
“She is there because it’s a poison chalice, and it’s a terrible time to be prime minister,” he said. “Her greatest strength—the reason why she has persevered as long as she has—is that actually none of her rivals would want to be steering the ship right now. They would much rather let her deal with the mess and then take over afterwards.”
Though May’s victory assures that she will carry on as prime minister for now, it came at a cost—and a deadline: Lawmakers said that in exchange for their support, May offered assurances that she would not intend to lead the party into the next general election, which is due to take place in 2022.
Until then, May faces the looming challenge of getting her Brexit deal through Parliament. While the vote has secured her leadership for the next year, it hasn’t changed the parliamentary deadlock, nor is it likely to sway the EU to reopen negotiations.
“I’m pleased to have received the backing of my colleagues in tonight’s ballot,” May said of the result outside Downing Street on Wednesday night, noting that while she was grateful to have secured the majority needed, “a significant number of colleagues did cast a vote against me and I have listened to what they said.”
She has heard them, but whether Britain leaves the EU with or without a deal will depend on whether she is able to persuade them.