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Theresa May Tried to Lead Britain to a Brexit Compromise. Was It Too Late?

Theresa May Tried to Lead Britain to a Brexit Compromise. Was It Too Late?

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Theresa May’s shortcomings as a politician — her dislike of the spotlight, her lack of a political tribe — were part of why she was chosen as prime minister in the first place.CreditCreditPool photo by Jack Taylor

LONDON — The full weight of two and a half years of struggle was visible on Prime Minister Theresa May’s face when she appealed to her colleagues to let go of their passionate, polarized beliefs and support her plan to leave the European Union in a vote on Tuesday.

“This argument has gone on long enough,” she said. “It is corrosive to our politics. And life depends on compromise.”

If Mrs. May’s appeal for compromise has rung hollow, it is because in part to her own choices.

For two and a half years as she negotiated Britain’s departure from the European Union, she was secretive about her intentions, like a poker player holding her cards to her chest. Early on, she expended vast reserves of energy reassuring the hard-line faction of her party that she was on their side, declaring boldly that “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.”

By the time she revealed her true plan, presenting the country with a compromise that should have appealed to moderates, she had few reserves of trust or loyalty to draw upon.

“She has not prepared the nation for what a compromise looks like,” said Katie Perrior, who served briefly as Mrs. May’s director of communications after she became prime minister. “At the beginning there was so much hard talk. ‘These are my red lines.’ Now people are trying to match the hard-talking Theresa May with another, more compromising one. She has not really explained that gap.”

Mrs. May, 62, could have been the perfect person to carry a message of compromise. She is an old-fashioned English public servant, devoid of bombast and rhetorical flourish, and uninterested in personal power. She had not created the churning whirlpool of ideology and grievance around Britain’s exit from the European Union, and this gave her some authority to bring it to an end.

During the weeks since Nov. 15, when Mrs. May released a 585-page agreement on withdrawing from the bloc, the prime minister has exhibited an air of noticeable calm, as if she is watching something predictable unfold.

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The debate continues. Pro- and anti-Brexit demonstrators camped outside Parliament this month.CreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times

In fact, she has long anticipated this moment of exposure, the point where, as Ms. Perrior put it, “you have to jump off the fence.”

She fully expected to face the wrath of hard-liners in her party. A bigger surprise, it seems, was the rejection of moderates. Ian Dunt, the author of “Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now,” said Mrs. May had been so preoccupied by fractures within the Conservative Party that she failed, until now, to address splits in the country.

“She has been a divider,” he said. “It’s only now she presents herself as a pragmatic centrist option. You need to build a reputation as a unifier. It’s not enough to turn around after two and a half years and say, ‘I’m a unifier.’”

Oddly, Mrs. May’s weaknesses as a politician — her dislike of the spotlight, her lack of a political tribe — were part of why she was chosen as prime minister in the first place. In 2016, the country was exhausted with upper-crust game players like David Cameron, her predecessor, who had casually led the country into turmoil by promising a referendum on leaving the European Union, never expecting that the Leave side would win.

To a fragile, stunned country, Mrs. May looked like a “safe pair of hands.” The daughter of a small-town vicar, she was diligent and cautious, not a member of any of Westminster’s political camps, or party to back-channel conspiracies. She had shown toughness and flashes of bravery in six years as home secretary. In the evenings, when her colleagues fanned out to social clubs and dinner parties, she would dine alone with her husband in the Commons.

Some of this aloofness was natural: When she rose through the party, she was one of very few senior women.

“I think she’s always been a bit of an outsider in her own party,” said Ayesha Hazarika, an author and political commentator. “I think she always cut quite a lonely figure, but then a lot of women on the Labour side did, too. I wouldn’t fault her for her historic lack of tribe.”

Brought into office with the central goal of negotiating Brexit, Mrs. May set about winning the confidence of her party’s right wing — not a simple task since in the referendum campaign she had supported remaining.

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Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Conservative lawmaker, is among those who have taken a hard line on Britain’s departure from the European Union.CreditNeil Hall/EPA, via Shutterstock

She built a team that including dedicated Brexiteers, among them her closest adviser, Nick Timothy, and echoed their thoughts in early speeches.

“Too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street,” she said at a Conservative Party conference in October 2016.

“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” she said. “You don’t understand what the word ‘citizenship’ means.”

She followed this up by articulating a series of “red lines,” promising to exit the customs union, single market and European Court of Justice. These promises would box her in, glossing over the fact that leaving the customs union would require establishing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But they kept her hard-line critics on board.

“She has got us to this position the only way she could, by exaggerating her Brexitiness initially and keeping the Brexiteers on side as long as she could,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London. “If your objective is to keep Theresa May in Downing Street, this might have been the only way she could do it.”

With the publication of her withdrawal agreement, Mrs. May ended her fence-sitting — and enraged the hard-Brexit faction.

Daniel Hannan, one of the founders of Vote Leave, said her deal “ends free movement, but otherwise keeps us in the E.U.” The worst betrayal, he said, was her acceptance of the so-called Irish backstop, which locks Northern Ireland into continued membership in the customs union until a trade deal is mutually agreed upon.

“Mrs. May has never properly grasped why 17.4 million of us voted Leave,” he said. “She seems to think that if she presents something — anything — that can technically be labeled Brexit, we will be satisfied.”

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Mrs. May “knew this was going to be ugly and awful, and it is,” a former aide said.CreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times

Her critics on the left say she wasted precious time soothing hard-line supporters of Brexit.

If Mrs. May had begun to build alliances with business, Scottish Unionists, Labour moderates and members of the Green party, she might have laid the groundwork for compromise, said Ms. Hazarika, a longtime adviser to Labour politicians.

“The country was very, very divided,” Ms. Hazarika said. “I think the mistake she made, she should have reached out to other people at that stage. I think she could have found allies.” Mrs. May’s secretive style, though helpful strategically, made it difficult to build those bridges.

“This is not a poker game,” she said. “This is the most important decision this country will take since the Second World War.”

Historians will dispute whether such a thing was ever possible. The Conservative lawmaker Rory Stewart, who in recent days has emerged as one of the country’s most passionate voices for compromise, said the prime minister had no choice but to be cautious as she threaded her way through a field of adversaries.

He said that those pushing for a hard Brexit, like the Tory lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg, were “never going to be comfortable with us remaining in a close, comfortable arrangement with the E.U.” and that the notion that Labour moderates would help her was delusional.

“There has never been a time since the Second World War where Labour has ever crossed the floor to help the Conservative Party at a time of crisis,” Mr. Stewart said.

Mrs. May’s strategy could collapse this week. If she leaves, it will be with the admiration of many Britons, who respect her uncomplaining grit. Ms. Perrior, her former aide, said Mrs. May was intent on protecting the Conservative Party — “it’s the main thing she loves, along with her husband, Philip” — from fatal fracture.

“She knew this was going to be ugly and awful, and it is,” she said. “But there is a bit about her which says, ‘I look around and there is no one I can hand the reins to who I think would do a better job.’”

Mr. Menon, the professor, was less sympathetic.

“She used inflammatory language that divided the country,” Mr. Menon said. “One of her legacies is a country that is now profoundly divided. It is divided across a dimension which raises a frightening possibility that our politics is going to be a culture war.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: As Brexit Vote Nears, May Asks a Polarized Nation to Allow Compromise. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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