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.”
Good will 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.”