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How British Prime Minister Theresa May Became The Person Trying To Wrangle Brexit

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

At the risk of sounding like "Groundhog Day," it's another pivotal week for Brexit, Britain's exit from the European Union. Tomorrow, members of Parliament plan to vote on amendments to the Brexit plan. This is largely the same plan they emphatically rejected two weeks ago, throwing the entire process in chaos.

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JOHN BERCOW: The ayes to the right, 202.

UNIDENTIFIED MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT: Oh.

BERCOW: The noes to the left, 432.

UNIDENTIFIED MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT: Oh.

CORNISH: Let's take a few moments now to better understand the person whose job it is to wrangle the mess that is Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May.

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PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: Brexit means Brexit.

This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back.

I choose to believe in Britain and that our best days lie ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT: Yeah.

CORNISH: For help, we called on Sam Knight, staff writer for The New Yorker. He wrote a profile of Theresa May last year painting a picture of her this way.

SAM KNIGHT: She's dutiful. She's straightforward. She's fundamentally honest. She doesn't tweet. She's - she's in many ways a leader who seems to be in short supply at the moment.

CORNISH: Yeah, she sounds kind of great. Tell me what the downside is.

KNIGHT: (Laughter). The downside of that is that at a moment, as she says, of fundamental change or a turning point, she is someone who I think sees politics as having a serious conversation with your officials, looking at the range of options, choosing the option - which might not be the best option, but it won't be the worst option - and then kind of batting for it.

And in a situation like Brexit and something as divisive and complicated as this, she is in danger of choosing a middle way, if you like, that runs the risk of pleasing nobody at all.

CORNISH: I want to come back to this in a moment. But let's look a little bit at her history in politics. What was her reputation coming up the ranks?

KNIGHT: So Theresa May's big job in politics before becoming prime minister was being home secretary from 2010 to 2016. And home secretary in the U.K., you're in charge of the police. You're in charge of borders. You're in charge of immigration. It's a very challenging job that is often the end of political careers.

And she was the longest-serving home secretary since the Second World War. So I think her reputation was definitely of a safe pair of hands, if you like, when the referendum happened in 2016 and produced this unlikely result.

CORNISH: You spoke to many people who could talk about her as a leader, meaning just being in the room, you know, where decisions are made and what she is like. What did they tell you?

KNIGHT: People who work with Theresa May, over the years, defend her kind of extremely stoutly and are extremely loyal to her because she is fundamentally straightforward. She has enormous stamina. You ask her to be somewhere at 7 o'clock in the morning, she will be there ready to go.

Her performance in the House of Commons trying to sell this deal over the last few months has been - even for people who might passionately disagree with it, no one disputes her honesty and her desire to do the right thing by the country.

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MAY: What I, members of the Cabinet and the whole government are doing is working to ensure that we leave the European Union with a deal.

KNIGHT: However, she's not someone who's comfortable with lots of voices in the room making contesting points. She likes to have a very small group of people who she trusts implicitly. Looking back on it, one of the things that's clear about her handling of Brexit, a phrase that really stayed with me during my reporting was, you know, she bunkered it.

You know, she took this into the bunker in Downing Street and tried to crack it with a very small group of people. And when you're trying to do something as complicated and as divisive as this, you know, trying to sell it, you need friends. You know, you need people who are going to stand up for you.

CORNISH: You write that this is a leader who is awkward and can come off as stiff and who can come off as shy. But you also talk about her being a good listener and someone who really pursues something she believes in to the end. Why is she not suited to this moment? I mean, why do people have their doubts?

KNIGHT: I think there are - there are two versions of that. There's a public-facing version of that. This is not a gifted speaker. This is not someone who really particularly believes in Brexit, I would say, in this sort of - with a capital B. You hear her talking about the deal that she struck with the European Union. And she gets out in front of the criticism. She says, look, this deal isn't perfect. You know, this is a compromise. You know, she's a grown-up in lots of ways, which is easy to admire. But it's not that easy to - to fall in behind and to feel excited about that, if someone's talking about the future of your country.

And then I think on the actual sort of - the hard, nitty gritty politics of this, you know, when I talk to officials and people who've worked closely with her, she doesn't leave the script. You know, there has not been a stage in the last two years where Theresa May has gotten on a plane and gone to Paris and gone for a walk with Emmanuel Macron and said, advisers, leave the room. We're going to talk about the future of Europe and what this thing looks like.

You know, this is a real kind of close-quarters politics in which people have to be talked 'round and glad-handed and convinced and cajoled and persuaded. And that is not in her makeup and hasn't been throughout her career. You know, it's - it's - it feels almost unfair that this fundamentally dutiful and, I think, brave person is in a position where a bit of schmooze wouldn't hurt. You know what I mean?

CORNISH: Sam Knight is a staff writer for The New Yorker. He's based in London. Thank you for speaking with us.

KNIGHT: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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