Theresa May Fights to Contain Her Own Brexit Revolt
Every morning, Gavin Barwell rises early, puts on a smart suit, makes his way across London to Downing Street, smiles to the police officer guarding the famous door of No. 10, sits at his desk deep in the prime minister’s inner sanctum, and tries to stop the British government from ripping itself apart.
As Prime Minister Theresa May’s chief of staff, Barwell is a cheerful, hardworking, popular figure in the Conservative Party. He’s also a testament to his boss’s perilously fragile position. Beset by rivals, weakened by a self-inflicted wound, and facing the daunting task of negotiating a successful Brexit deal, May needs Barwell to, at the very least, put a happy face on things. Her troubles stem from her decision earlier this year to call an election when she didn’t have to. Riding high in the polls, May counted on boosting her slender majority in Parliament and strengthening her hand in negotiations with the European Union. Instead, she suffered a humiliating reversal, losing her majority and almost her job.
May now leads a minority government and remains prime minister thanks only to the support of the tiny Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland and the grudging consent of her own Conservative colleagues. For the moment, that still includes her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, the pro-Brexiter and former London mayor. But divisions are widening. On Sept. 15, Johnson published a 4,200-word essay in the Tory-supporting Daily Telegraph setting out a rival vision for Britain’s “glorious” future. To colleagues it looked, at best, like a deliberate attempt to tie May’s hands on Brexit and, at worst, like a blatant bid to take the leadership himself.
Not so long ago, May was on top of the world. She was the first foreign leader to visit President Donald Trump at the White House. After the pair were photographed holding hands in the West Wing Colonnade, newspapers reported that Trump hoped to rekindle the famously special trans-Atlantic friendship that Ronald Reagan had with Margaret Thatcher, telling friends: “She’s my Maggie.”
In London, too, many saw May as the new Iron Lady of British politics. She ruled with supreme authority, exerting power through her two co-chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. Hill, a formidable Scot, has a background in communications, while Timothy, a working-class intellectual, was regarded as May’s policy brain. Fiercely loyal, the two exercised control of the government on May’s behalf.
While some ministers felt locked out of the decision-making process, the approach seemed to work at first. Britain was politically stable, with a popular, center-right leader and a chaotic socialist Labour opposition that looked to be as far from power as ever. But as May got closer to the March 2017 deadline to trigger the start of Brexit, she suddenly found lawmakers in Parliament trying to block the process. Hill and Timothy persuaded her to call the early election. When it backfired, Tory lawmakers demanded their heads and both had to resign.
May is now unable to impose her will on a restless cabinet whose members are openly arguing about what kind of Brexit they want. For Johnson and other hardliners, any transition between EU membership and full Brexit must be short, and payments to Brussels must end. For moderates, such as Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, the withdrawal process must be long and close to the “status quo” to help businesses adjust. Keeping the peace in a government this divided is a full-time job.
Enter the smiling, affable Barwell, who was hired in June. In an effort to rebuild alliances, Barwell hosts regular sandwich and potato chip lunches with lawmakers inside No. 10. Amid rumors of fresh plotting among her rivals for the leadership, May invited rank-and-file lawmakers to join her at Chequers, the prime minister’s 400-year-old country residence, during the summer vacation. Over prosecco, they discussed Brexit, the election result, and how to combat the threat from a resurgent left-wing Labour Party.
Whatever harmony ensued, Johnson destroyed with his essay. Allies urged May to sack him, while he hinted he could quit if she didn’t grant his wishes. This drama played out while they were both in New York for the UN General Assembly. On Sept. 20, Johnson unexpectedly changed his plans in order to join May on her flight back to London. May will try to make peace with Johnson and the rest of her cabinet at a meeting before she delivers a key speech on Brexit in Florence, which she hopes will thaw the frozen EU talks. Specifically, May will provide details about the sort of free-trade relationship she wants between the U.K. and the EU, an accord that will determine how U.K.-based financial services will operate across the bloc and the customs rules that will apply. Yet Brussels is insisting that she must agree to the terms of the divorce settlement before negotiating any pacts. Unless Britain accepts that it will have to pay a heavy financial price—the so-called Brexit bill—the EU will not even consider the terms of any trade agreement.
If May buckles to Brussels and promises to keep paying into the EU budget, euroskeptics among the Tories, including Johnson, will feel betrayed and could even move to oust her. If she tries to keep her party happy by refusing to give the EU what it wants, she risks reaching no Brexit deal at all. “She’s in a mess of her own making,” says Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “It’s all blown up in her face, and she has no one to blame but herself. If she hadn’t left the EU negotiations in such a mess ... it would almost be funny—trouble is, it’s anything but.”