Prime Minister Theresa May and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, two female politicians on either side of the Atlantic, each managed to stave off challenges to their leadership from members of their own parties last month, but only after both made commitments to step down within the next five years.
Along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pledge to not seek reelection in 2021, these two promises—the political equivalent of self-imposed expiration dates—mean that almost an entire generation of the West’s most recognizable stateswomen will exit the world stage in just the next few years. Now, with Pelosi having negotiated a temporary end to the partial government shutdown and May attempting again to pass a final Brexit deal, it is worth remembering that both women must contend with fundamental problems at the core of the power they are wielding to lead.
As the Conservative Party’s members of the British Parliament gathered in December to vote on a no-confidence ballot that would have forced Theresa May to step down, the prime minister promised a room full of her own party’s backbenchers that she would resign before the next parliamentary elections in Britain. Even then, 117 of her colleagues voted against her.
While it is hard to know whether May’s promise to eventually step aside swayed the forty-odd members whose votes made the difference, one thing is clear: her decision is nearly unprecedented. Her four living predecessors in the premiership, all of whom are men, were either rejected by British voters at the ballot box or left office on their own terms. None of them were forced to set expiration dates on their own time in office to survive challenges from their own parties.
On the day of the no-confidence vote, YouGov polled over 3,000 British adults and asked them whether they thought Theresa May should continue as prime minister, as well as whether they thought someone else could “negotiate a better exit deal with the EU” if May lost the vote. Read more