It is the sort of dilemma that faces many a female president facing perilous political situation at home: Choose to lurch out of the spotlight or bend over backward to manage the damage and save face at home, where voters will judge you on your actions, not your words.
But the choice that Prime Minister Theresa May is facing looks like a crapshoot, full of pitfalls that will make it difficult to do either. That is what most intriguing about the prime minister’s talk of speed bumps and uncertainty, which run through the end of 2019.
By virtue of her scheduled speech to Conservative Party members on Tuesday evening in Birmingham, May can both tout progress in getting an orderly exit from the European Union — and head home without making any enemies. She can keep Brexit high on the agenda without possibly landing on her foot.
But it will take some doing to make a big impression on those already skeptical of her leadership. For example, her description of “difficult decisions” her officials will have to make in the weeks ahead, including thorny subjects like trade and how Britain will finance its exit, will be greeted with barely a murmur. And the sense is that the prime minister has not even tried to satisfy her own critics and secure their support by delivering a higher-profile speech addressing the shortcomings in the Brexit plan she agreed to last week with her Cabinet.
What May has done is effectively take her most confrontational threat out of the plan — that of an alternative deal — while still leaving it on the table, increasing the possibility that the government will leave the EU without a deal, giving Britain an entirely different future that many are wary of. Her speech Tuesday night will, for many, be a sense-maker at best, not a game-changer.
Part of the problem is that the government has put little stock in developing a policy on the future of Brexit. For the most part, it seemed to be counting on the BBC Good Friday debate that May was conducting with Michael Gove, the leader of the hard-Brexit wing of the Conservative Party. So after Gove exposed the existence of a “Plan B” called the White Paper, May promptly went into damage-control mode and called an emergency Cabinet meeting.
The last thing May needs is to lose her credibility with the British people or prove herself a leader unable to bring her colleagues together. There has been little need for that. Politically, there is not much she can do but spend more time playing the waiting game, letting what appear to be internal divisions fester further. She has the support of most of her Cabinet. But now, it seems, it is coming down to keeping the fissures from damaging the government, and for the time being at least, that won’t be a big enough task to save her job.
Gove was at the forefront of the effort to torpedo May’s plan for a free-trade deal with the EU, leading the no-deal camp to a decision to endorse a softer plan of a trade deal designed to avoid a disorderly departure. The argument for the softer plan is that Britain is better off leaving the EU with less than a bespoke deal, to be negotiated as and when Brussels mandates it, than staying in the bloc with a semi-mature version of the May agreement. And so, rather than fighting the hard-line Brexiteers — particularly those from the European Research Group, which includes Jacob Rees-Mogg, the senior Brexiteer legislator — May abandoned her plan for a free-trade deal with the EU. Her vice president, Penny Mordaunt, told her supporters at the conference on Monday that the “clock was ticking” to move toward “the next stage of negotiations.”