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Theresa May might be the most important person in the world right now

By Andrew Sullivan From New York Magazine

Good luck. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

There was a priceless video this past week of Theresa May arriving to visit Angela Merkel in Berlin, in another soul-sucking trip to beg the E.U. to give her something — anything — to throw to the wolves at home. After her black town car stopped at the curb, and a flunky rushed to open the door, the lock jammed. He yanked and pulled for a painful length of time, and after some final wiggling, the door eventually yielded. And the prime minister emerged, all smiles with gritted teeth, and perkily shook hands with her German alter ego, Angela Merkel. Merkel subsequently insisted that the deal they had already negotiated was the final one.

It’s a metaphor for Theresa May’s task since the Brexit referendum. Getting out of the E.U. has turned out to be like one of those travel anxiety dreams, where you never somehow get to where you need to go and time is running out. And you’ve got to feel for her. She didn’t intend to be prime minister in the wake of Brexit. She’d voted to remain in the E.U. after all, unlike the triumphant Brexiteers, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the two leading Tories who gave Brexit crucial, and unmerited, credibility. But these two men engaged in so much flimflam, bullshit, mutual betrayal, and public grandstanding, that May was asked to be the grown-up to clear up the male mess.

But she had and has a close-to-impossible task. The country had voted in favor of a profound and radical change in Britain’s place in the world. But it was a very narrow victory — 51.9 to 48.1 percent. She realized from the start that this made her task more difficult: She had to both leave the E.U. andsomehow keep the country from splitting in two. But the job became even harder after she called the 2017 election and lost her parliamentary majority entirely. She’s now reliant on a Northern Irish party to stay in Downing Street at all. And they’re currently pissed off.

What she eventually wrangled was a deal that kept Britain’s trade in goods with the E.U. — 44 percent of exports and 53 percent of imports — as frictionless as possible, while formally leaving the bloc, and regaining control over immigration. It’s the only feasible compromise, but renders the U.K. subject to E.U. trading rules without having any say in making them, and also constrains Britain’s ability to make bilateral trade deals across the world. She tried to make sure there was something for the Leave voters and something for the Remain voters, but in the end no one was satisfied, her own party revolted, her Northern Irish partners said they’d vote against the deal, and the opposition was unwilling to rescue her, leaving May without any majority in parliament for her Brexit deal — or indeed, potentially, for her government as a whole.

Yes, this past week, she survived an internal Tory contest to boot her out as leader. But only just. The number of Tory MPs who voted to get rid of her was a whopping 117 (much higher than expected). If you subtract the votes of her own appointed ministers, she lost a majority of Tory backbenchers. Two-hundred votes in favor was not too encouraging. For a comparison, when Thatcher got 204 votes in the internal coup of 1990, she felt she had no choice but to resign. And the only way that May got 200 votes at all was that she promised she’d quit after the Brexit deadline and before the next election in 2022. So May limps on, governing as a lame turkey waiting for Christmas. (In this, oddly, she is joined by both Angela Merkel, who is still chancellor but will not fight the next election, and Nancy Pelosi, who will be the speaker after promising to quit in 2021.)

Here’s my best bet for what comes next. She gets no breaks from the E.U., and loses the parliamentary vote on Brexit in the first weeks of January. Then the prospect of a Brexit with no deal — an abrupt wall of new tariffs going up, a sharp end to all the myriad arrangements Britain has evolved with the E.U. over the past 40 years — will hit home. Markets will likely tank, and the pound likely plummet. May might lose a parliamentary vote of no confidence — much graver than an internal Tory revolt — and face a new election.

At the same time, many Brits realize that Labour is as divided as the Tories and prefer her as prime minister to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn — and her own MPs are very leery of effectively handing over the government to Jeremy Corbyn, their socialist nemesis. So that vote of no-confidence might well not happen, in which case, there could be a vote for second referendum. But there’s no guarantee that a new plebiscite would be any less divisive than the first. And so Parliament may well have to come around and ask themselves at some point if May’s squishy Brexit is better than no deal or no Brexit at all.

This, it seems to me, is May’s gamble. She’s betting that though her compromise is widely reviled right now, all the alternatives will, in the cold light of day, soon look worse. Think of voting her deal down like Congress’s refusal to follow George W. Bush and bail out the banks in 2008. The House rejected a $700 billion bailout plan on a Monday, but by Friday, after a $1.2 trillion plummet in the market, enough Republicans flipped to allow the measure to pass. May is trying to bounce her party into accepting her deal in a similar way. It’s brinksmanship of the highest level. We simply don’t know if May, the Remainers, or the Leavers will blink first.

But it will be a watershed whatever. You can see Brexit more broadly as a critical stage in the evolution of the new populist nationalism in the West. Can old-style pragmatic conservatism defang, co-opt, and tame it? Or are the forces behind it too strong? One thing I’d say: If the usually sensible British people, through their representatives, decide that the meaning of being British and completely independent again is worth the price of economic crisis and even collapse, and a drastic drop in Britain’s global power, then we will learn something important.

It will be a sign that the populist tide is, for the moment at least, unstoppable. It means that Macron, already crippled with 18 an percent approval rating, will not be the savior of Europe or globalism, merely their undertaker. It will mean that the Greens and the AfD will be the key rival players in the future of Germany. It will mean that Italy may well be the next E.U. member to leave. And it should sink in Stateside that maybe ignoring the groundswell for protectionism and immigration control in this rapidly changing world is not the smartest thing to do. Which is why I’m not so sure that Nancy Pelosi’s absolutism on Trump’s wall this week was as big a victory as the media deemed it to be.

So a lot is riding on May’s gamble. And there is real courage and patriotism behind her attempt to honor Brexit while also respecting those Brits who voted to remain. She has endured mockery, contempt, ridicule, and worse for doing her duty. Which is why I hope and pray she can still somehow pull this off. Somehow.

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