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Theresa May: What if she stays?

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LONDON — Like many introverts, Theresa May is in love with the limelight.

The British prime minister is often accused of being a robot — but shes more like the shy girl at school persuaded to sing at the school concert who becomes an overnight star.

Her famous love of fashion, including a weakness for leather trousers and outlandish footwear, is perhaps the most obvious hint at the ego hiding behind the reserved demeanor.

That why its worth questioning the widespread assumption that May does not really enjoy her job, that she remains in office only because her sense of duty demands she deliver Brexit.

Yes, it does seem unlikely that the Tory Party would allow May to fight another general election after her disastrous 2017 campaign.

But what if May sees things differently? What if, after Brexit is finally done in March, she decides she wants to stay?

Best person for the job

It was the prime ministers father, Hubert Brasier — an Anglican vicar so “high” in his religiosity that he considered life as a celibate monk — who taught May the value of thinking for herself.

Throughout her life she has seemed genuinely uninterested in how her words and actions are received by all but a handful of people: first her parents, then the man who became her husband, Philip May, and later her now disgraced advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill.

Into that mix could also be thrown an amorphous group known as the “British electorate.” But it is May, and no one else, who decides how she presents herself to them.

It takes a confident sense of oneself to eschew close friends at an all-girls grammar school (she did have some like-minded companions at Oxford) or as a backbench MP in the House of Commons — both notoriously cliquey places.

Unlike John Major and Gordon Brown, the predecessors she is most often compared to, May does not suffer from a thin skin and is not plagued by self-doubt.

Freed from groupthink, she knows what she wants and is not afraid to take it — regardless of what other people, her own MPs, commentators, newspaper editors, might say or think.

Its true that May does not relish a lot of the stuff that comes with high office — especially being forced to interact with the public and journalists. Thats part of the reason the election was such a trial.

But it would be wrong to suggest she does not adore being prime minister, a position she craved for many years and, more importantly, thinks she deserves. Every evidence indicates she believes, quite simply, that she is the best person for the job.

The Osborne treatment

Unlike John Major and Gordon Brown, the predecessors she is most often compared to, May does not suffer from a thin skin and is not plagued by self-doubt.

She said recently she no longer reads the newspapers, and she has never lain awake at night worrying about her critics. Shes far too busy working late on her red ministerial boxes. But that doesnt mean she wouldnt relish getting one over on those who assume her time as prime minister is drawing to a close.

During her long career in parliament before her appointment home secretary, Mays abiding sensation was one of frustration: at being overlooked, underestimated and underappreciated.

Former British Prime Minister John Major | Carl Court/Getty Images

By the time she achieved a degree of seniority, she had been leap-frogged by the bright, young, posh boys David Cameron and George Osborne. Even as home secretary, a job she relished, she continued to resent the Cameroons for excluding her from their inner circle.

Anyone who doubts how much this rankled should remember how she dealt with Osborne when she became prime minister, sending him packing from her first Cabinet with the advice that he could return when he became a little humbler.

Nothing would please May more than to confound those who believe she is on the cusp of standing down, and give the Osborne treatment to those underestimating her today.

Who else?

And what, after all, is stopping May from staying on until the next election — and well beyond if she pleases?

The broadly positive response to her Tory conference speech shows there is an openness to her ideas again, offering a real opportunity to develop the domestic policy agenda she laid out so powerfully when she came to office.

Although at root she is a technocrat not an ideologue, May is inspired by the notion of meritocracy, the transformation of Britain into a true level playing field.

May is outscoring Johnson by 62 percent to 15 percent in the latest polling of Tory voters when it comes to the question of leadership.

As a young parliamentary candidate in the 1990s, a time when all-women shortlists were in vogue, May deplored the idea she might receive preferential treatment.

Instead she became the driving force in the foundation of Women to Win, a body that attempts to ensure women enjoy the same advantages as their male counterparts, rather than giving female candidates a leg up.

Its a philosophy Nick Timothy, her former aide, was helping frame as the defining feature of her leadership before he was forced out following the 2017 election. Once Brexit is out of the way, May will likely try to return to it. And, really, who is left to stop her?

Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, often tipped to be British prime minister | Dan Kitwood/Getty Image

For all the chatter about replacing her, there remains no outstanding candidate for the party to unite around, as her rivals continue their habit of shooting themselves in the foot (see Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom, Johnson again).

May is outscoring Johnson by 62 percent to 15 percent in the latest polling of Tory voters when it comes to the question of leadership. The others arent faring any better.

If — and it is a big if — May can emerge from Brexit with a deal the public can more or less get behind, and particularly if the result is an economic uptick and the fulfilment of her conference pledge to call a halt to austerity, then come March 2019 she would be in a far stronger position than at any time since assuming office.

Why then would she give up the job she genuinely believes is rightfully hers?

Rosa Prince is the author of “Theresa May: The Enigmatic Prime Minister” (Biteback Publishing, 2017).

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