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."
May never thought the world owed her anything; she was brought up too piously for that. Instead, she places great emphasis on discipline. Over the course of several years, she slowly and inconspicuously worked her way up the political ladder, all the way to the office of Home Secretary. Since 1997, she has represented the constituency of Maidenhead, just an hour's train ride west of London, in parliament. It is a region of country inns, stone churches and thick hedgerows, with the Thames babbling among the rolling hills covered with woods and meadows. Only the newest Land Rover models on the streets hint outwardly at the 21st century.
But it is also an area that has become home to software and biotech firms, to the electronics company Hitachi and the logistics company Maersk. Maidenhead is anything but provincial. And May tries to make time in her busy schedule for a weekly visit to her constituency to speak with citizens, give out prizes, collect donations and answers voters' questions. There aren't many in Westminster who spend as much time with their constituents. "Theresa knows exactly what's going on here," says Geoffrey Hill.
Hill is chair of the local Tory association and still seems a bit tired as he sits down at a table in a Maidenhead café. The previous evening, May had celebrated her 60th birthday in London and she had, of course, invited the most important people from her constituency.
"What you see is what you get," Hill says about May. She doesn't have a hidden agenda, he says, and there are no scandals to be unearthed. That is far from a given in London, where members of parliament have been caught dancing on tables in the red-light district, among a host of other scandals in recent years. May, by contrast, is down-to-earth, embodying efficiency, and reliability. She is what England would like to be.
The Mays have a home in their voting district and their neighbors include George and Amal Clooney, who occasionally make appearances at the local pub, in addition to bankers, rugby players and Led Zeppelin's lead singer. It is a place where British reserve is alive and well and the local pastor proudly claims to have rejected 70 interview requests. "Some people here talk a lot," he says. "But they don't know anything. The ones who know something don't talk."
Given the Nod
Philip Love is a local councillor and a member of the Conservative Party. He was also a member of the party committee that was charged with finding a Tory parliamentary candidate for the newly created district in the late 1990s. There were 240 candidates. One question that was asked of all of them was whether they thought the party did everything right. Love says that many simply answered that, of course, the Conservatives did everything right. "But Theresa eloquently outlined the mistakes we had made in the last 20 years," Love says. A certain David Cameron was also among the applicants, but he wasn't chosen. May was given the nod.
May has chosen to place her focus on patriotism, her home country and love of the nation. At the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham in early October, she said: "If you believe you're a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere" -- an astonishing statement because it sounded so deeply provincial. May wasn't just challenging the cosmopolitan financial and corporate classes in Britain, but also the Londonization of the country. Many in London saw the sentence as a direct challenge to British openness. In rural England, though, it was well received.
May can often seem stubborn and obdurate and elements of her speeches seem narrow-minded and severe. In this sense, she is reminiscent of the Iron Lady. But if one interprets the outcome of the Brexit referendum as rural revenge against the arrogance of London, then her strategy is the correct one. She wants to support regions that have been left behind and provide aid to cities and municipalities that are struggling with the consequences of immigration. She wants to give power back to rural England, and at least one person is standing by to help her.
Nick Timothy is the man who transforms May's vision into words. He's 36 and has been writing speeches for May since she headed up the Home Office. Timothy is seen as a combative Euroskeptic who holds more influence over the prime minister than any other person. The news website POLITICO Europe recently referred to him as "the man who is really running Britain."
A 'Vow of Silence'
Timothy is the opposite of a London left-wing liberal. He hails from a working class district of Birmingham and has nothing but disdain for capital elitists. If he had a wish available, he wrote in a column for the website ConservativeHome, it would be "a vow of silence from our pompous, hypocritical, self-obsessed political celebrities."
Like Labour, the Conservatives have the problem that they have been moving their party towards the center of society since the end of the 1990s, but in doing so have neglected the fringes as well as those voters who don't live in the big cities. Timothy sees one of his challenges as that of steering the disappointed working class away from Labour and UKIP and towards the Conservatives. His rise shows just how radically May has broken with the Cameron years. Her advisors could hardly be more skeptical of the London metropolis.
The danger, however, is that Britain could lose its reputation as an open, cosmopolitan trading nation. May's advisor is in favor of a reserved foreign policy that shies away from intervention. He is likewise opposed to accepting Syrian children who fled to Europe from the war back home.
Moderate Tories feel excluded by this kind of rhetoric. Those parliamentarians who were in favor of remaining in the EU feel as though they have been silenced and are wondering what role is left for them in the pro-Brexit party.
One of them is the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke. Sitting in his office, Clarke looks a bit like a melancholic St. Bernhard. He has been a Conservative MP since 1970 and knows May from her early days in the lower house -- though, like many, he is careful when saying he "knows" her. Actually, Clarke says from his armchair, he doesn't really know what May's views are on a lot of broader political issues.
That is rather remarkable given that he was in the cabinet with May for four years. "As Home Secretary, she rarely went outside her brief" in speeches or appearances. She just got on with her job," Clarke says. But she did her job so well, he continues, that she had long been seen as a candidate for higher office. Clarke doesn't doubt that deep down May is a pragmatic pro-European. "The fact is that Theresa May is in the biggest political shambles the Conservative Party has found itself in for years."
The Opposite of Efficient
May entered office with the pretense of changing the country. She wants to reunite the disunited kingdom -- poor and rich, Scots and English -- and she isn't afraid of making enemies. She is critical of exploitative business leaders and promises to deal severely with companies that seek to avoid paying taxes.
May has already surprised the British with the speed and efficiency with which she has taken over the business of governing. She will approach negotiations with Europe with a similar resoluteness, no matter what she personally believes and by the end of next March, she wants to trigger Article 50 and begin the formal process of leaving the EU. She is a disciplined, tenacious strategist who is used to getting her way. Europe, though, doesn't work that way. European politics takes place during late-night meetings in Brussels and is the polar opposite of efficient. May needs something that thus far hasn't been one of her strengths: patience and the ability to win people over. The negotiations promise to be just as difficult for her as for the rest of Europe.
She has replaced her "Brexit means Brexit" mantra by saying that Britain seeks the "maximum freedom to trade with and operate within the single market." That hasn't served to make her Brexit plans any more clear, but even the hint that she might be willing to compromise has made EU opponents furious. Doing so, the Leave.EU campaign says, would be "a clear betrayal of the British people."
As an EU advocate, May knows how vulnerable she is in a party full of hardliners. Furthermore, she suffers from the taint of having been chosen by the party and not elected by voters. She must defend herself against accusations that she is trying to thwart the will of the British people.
That could ultimately mean that she will -- exactly for that reason -- be more stubborn in her negotiations with Brussels than others might have been.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 44/2016 (October 29th, 2016) of DER SPIEGEL.
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