It’s been a good week for Britain’s Theresa May and America’s Nancy Pelosi, both of whom survived leadership challenges—and both of whom have repeatedly been underestimated by their colleagues and the media.
On Wednesday, May, the longstanding butt of jokes, survived a no-confidence motion by a secret ballot vote of 200 to 117. Many commentators noted that the vote had weakened her and left her plan to enact Brexit in an orderly fashion no closer to winning parliamentary approval than before. But had she lost, Britain would have had to engage in what would likely have been an extended leadership battle to pick a new Tory leader (and thus, a new prime minister) and negotiate a new plan to leave the EU—all politically unlikely by March 29, the deadline for drafting a “soft” or negotiated exit from the EU, as opposed to crashing out of the Union without such an agreement, in what is known as a “hard” exit.
It is indeed doubtful that May can secure enough parliamentary support for her proposal to leave the EU, or that Brussels will grant her the concessions she needs to muster such backing. But in losing Wednesday’s no-confidence vote, the most ardent Brexiteers failed miserably in their effort to replace her with one of their own. Under Tory rules, no Conservative Party member can challenge her leadership again for at least a year. That includes the ambitious former foreign minister Boris Johnson, or Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the pro-Brexit hardline caucus in her notoriously fractious party, who proclaimed her victory Wednesday “a terrible result for the prime minister.”
The daughter of a vicar, May “drinks Earl Grey tea, reads Jane Austen, watches James Bond films, regularly attends church in her constituency (Maidenhead, a posh town in the Thames valley) and adores cricket,” the Economist wrote in a profile of her six months after her election. Described as solid and boring, a politician who postpones crucial decisions as long as possible, she has nonetheless managed to outmaneuver her many critics, who say that she prevailed only by promising not to stand as party leader in the next general election, scheduled for 2022. But four years is a lifetime in a democracy like Britain’s. Who knows how Tories or British voters will see her by then? Her detractors say that the “ice queen of Westminster,” as she is known, lacks leadership skills and imagination. Perhaps—but they also said that because she was such a poor campaigner, she would never win a general election, or survive repeated threats to her leadership. They said that she would never be able to negotiate a 585-page divorce agreement from the EU. But she did. May, who made clear from the outset that she was no fan of Brexit, still has the only working exit plan in town.
Across the Atlantic, Nancy Pelosi, too, has faced myriad challenges and been consistently dismissed as a politician. Her Democratic Party critics said that she was too old, too closely tied to the Washington establishment, and too centrist to be elected Speaker of the House when Democrats become the majority party in January. She seems to be about to prove them wrong, again.
Elected to Congress in 1987 from an utterly safe Democrat seat in San Francisco, Pelosi is the only woman to have previously served as speaker (from 2007 to 2011); she served as minority leader afterward. Though she was instrumental in the passage of several landmark bills—among them, the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd–Frank, the Consumer Protection Act, and stimulus legislation in the wake of the 2008 recession—her real power rests in her record as a prodigious fundraiser for fellow Democratic candidates. Though a group of younger progressive members opposed her quest for the speakership, she has, one by one, eliminated challengers. Even Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who joined a protest at her office in November, wound up reluctantly endorsing her.
Boosters say that her best qualification for the job is her record. Under her leadership and her insistence on steering clear of the most divisive issues—such as calls for the impeachment of President Trump—while concentrating on bread-and-butter issues, particularly health care, Democrats won a resounding victory in the House in the November midterms, gaining 40 seats and trouncing Republicans in traditional strongholds like Orange County, California. Pelosi gave Democrats her own reasons last year why she deserved the job. In one of her weekly news conferences in San Francisco last year, she called herself a “master legislator” and a “strategic, politically astute leader” whose fundraising helped win a Democratic majority in Congress. “I’m worth the trouble,” and Democrats seem ready to make that judgment official.
Photos: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images (L), Alex Wong/Getty Images, (R)