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Opinion | Is Theresa May a Secret Genius?

The prime minister’s allies say that she’s actually a skillful tactician. But her maneuvering may not be enough to get the country through Brexit.

By Jenni Russell

Contributing Opinion Writer

ImageOpinion | Is Theresa May a Secret Genius?
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May outside 10 Downing Street in London last month.CreditCreditDaniel Leal-Olivas/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain is a woman widely scorned. For 17 months, ever since she lost her Conservative Party its majority in an unnecessary, vainglorious election, the news media has been speculating daily on how long this private, dutiful, diffident leader can last and when the bid to topple her will begin. As the national disaster that is Brexit looms frighteningly close, the woman in charge has appeared hopelessly buffeted by events, trapped between the implacable European Union and her own party’s venomous Euroskeptics.

The Brexit talks have been apparently paralyzed for weeks; half of Britain is aghast at the very real threat that we might crash out of the European Union with no deal, wrecking the economy and our relationships with our closest neighbors. The country is teetering on the edge of its worst crisis since World War II. But this time, Britain has declared war on itself.

Senior Conservative Party colleagues, exasperated with Mrs. May’s Brexit performance, sneer at her both openly and anonymously for being useless, obstinate, indecisive. “Lead or go” declared a cover story in The Spectator, an influential conservative magazine.

Behind the scenes, though, the tiny group of Mrs. May’s allies and advisers are telling a very different story. A deal with Brussels is imminent, and, they say, it will be on Mrs. May’s terms. Diplomatically delicate phrases will smooth over the biggest current obstacle to an agreement, the position of Northern Ireland. Mrs. May, these advisers say, has been steering a smarter path than outsiders can know, toward the least damaging Brexit that the politics will allow, eventually easing a deal through the House of Commons.

Her allies maintain that while Mrs. May has made some grievous tactical errors, she has been less naïve and incompetent than she appears. Rather than being the helpless victim of her party’s divides, she has been engaged in a stealthy operation to avoid confrontation with her rebellious right-wing colleagues in public, while outflanking them in private. Like Muhammad Ali in a comeback fight, she has chosen to absorb punches until the very last moment she can deliver her own.

Is Mrs. May really more of a Machiavellian fighter than a punching bag? Well, possibly. But even if these generous interpretations of the prime minister’s actions over the past two years are accurate, her strategy will still turn out to have been a dangerous mistake once Brexit finally arrives. Only brave leadership — not back-room games — can save Britain.

One senior politician described Mrs. May’s embarrassing predicament: “It looks like dithering, it’s not heroic, and you can’t boast about it until it’s done, but it’s practical,” he told me. “It’s been hellish,” another said. The divisions over Brexit left her “in an impossible position” from the beginning, this politician said, caught between enemies in her own party and a complex exercise in international diplomacy.

That has meant a strategy of caution and deception: adopting the Brexiteers’ hard-line rhetoric to start with, while knowing that compromises with the European Union would be inevitable; avoiding collective cabinet discussions in case they resulted in walkouts or leaks; not reacting to public humiliations like Boris Johnson’s attack on her Brexit plans as “crazy.” Her fear has been that if she opposed the Euroskeptics outright, they would revolt and replace her with a hard-liner.

Mrs. May is famously uncommunicative, secretive, averse to being challenged and cool toward her colleagues. Her sense of being besieged has encouraged those tendencies. “Her natural secrecy has been reinforced by political practicality,” said a person who advises the prime minister. She has a core group of six to eight people acting as advisers, and even some of those are unsure of her strategy because she keeps so much to herself. “Like talking to a brick wall; you get nothing back,” a senior Conservative said.

This degree of isolation leaves Mrs. May cut off from the insights that she needs for Britain to avoid calamity. Furious and frustrated politicians, experts, diplomats and business leaders have been blocked, sidelined or ignored when they have tried to brief the prime minister on the catastrophic complexities of Brexit. Even those she listens to rarely hear what she thinks. They often deduce it from how she acts afterward.

By being so silent, Mrs. May has not made the case for the Brexit deal she wants. Even if she gets Brussels to agree to it, it will fail unless she can get the cabinet and members of Parliament to back it — not by secrecy and shrewd bluffs, but by full-throated advocacy and persuasion.

And that is the fatal flaw in Mrs. May’s punching-bag strategy. She needs support she has not bothered to build. Ever since taking power in 2016, she should have been telling Britain the truth: The Brexit you hoped for is undeliverable because it promised a fantasy. The Brexiteers lied to you. We cannot have all the benefits of the European Union and none of the costs. We must compromise or face disaster.

Even some of Mrs. May’s close supporters say privately that her deal cannot survive. If it reaches the House of Commons, which must approve any Brexit agreement, many Conservative Euroskeptics will rebel, and not enough of the opposition will step in to save her. There will be uproar, chaos, talk of a second referendum and fears of “no deal.”

This situation was never inevitable. It is the product of an overcautious leader’s fundamental misjudgment of her party’s politics. Mrs. May has always been stronger than she thought; she had defeated the Brexiteers to become prime minister, and none, despite all their sniping and plotting, has had the backing to replace her since. A more courageous leader would have argued publicly for the least disruptive Brexit from the start, persuading a divided country to follow her, avoiding the immense damage we have already inflicted on our businesses, our international reputation and our relationship with our alienated, exhausted European Union partners.

Mrs. May has been inadequate, but she was the best her party could agree on. “Would anyone else step up?” an insider asked. “Everyone wants her job after March,” when Britain is set to leave the European Union. “No one else wants it now.”

Jenni Russell (@jennirsl) is a columnist for The Times of London and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times.

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