May took on her detractors in a punchy address to the party's annual conference, a day after a rival, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, challenged her authority with a crowd-pleasing speech of his own.
"If we all go off in different directions in pursuit of our own visions of the perfect Brexit, we risk ending up with no Brexit at all," May said in a warning to Johnson and others who aim to oust her or force her to change course.
"A Brexit that might make Britain stronger 50 years from now is no good to you if it makes your life harder today," she noted. Britain's governing party is deeply divided over the country's impending departure from the EU, with pro- and anti-EU camps both criticizing the prime minister's negotiations with the bloc.
With just under six months until Britain leaves the EU on March 29, the speech Wednesday was an attempt by May to solve her Brexit conundrum. The EU has rejected her proposed Brexit deal and demanded new ideas from Britain. But pro-Brexit members of May's Conservative government oppose any softening of the U.K.'s stance.
So the negotiations with the EU have ground to a halt, U.K. businesses are growing jittery and Conservative Brexiteers like Johnson are demanding that the U.K. make a clean break with the bloc — deal or no deal.
Less than three weeks before a make-or-break EU summit in Brussels, May said divorce talks were entering their "toughest phase." But she rejected calls by Euroskeptics to walk away from the talks, saying that "leaving without a deal — introducing tariffs and costly checks at the border — would be a bad outcome for the U.K. and the EU."
May's speech was a direct riposte to Johnson, who told a rapturous audience on Tuesday that May's proposal for close post-Brexit economic ties with the EU was an "outrage" that would leave Britain unable to strike new trade deals around the world.
May defended her Brexit blueprint, which aims to keep Britain aligned with many EU rules in return for remaining in the bloc's single market for goods. She argued that her plan would preserve the frictionless trade that many businesses depend on, while ensuring "no change whatsoever" to Northern Ireland's border with Ireland.
The U.K. and the EU agree there must be no customs checks or other barriers along the currently invisible border between the U.K.'s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. But they don't agree on how to achieve that, and the issue remains the biggest obstacle to a Brexit deal.
May's speech was a triumph compared to last year's disastrous event, when she was plagued by a cough, interrupted by a prankster and had parts of the stage backdrop fall down as she was speaking. This time, May even poked fun at her robotic public image — cemented when her awkward dance moves on a trip to Africa went viral — by busting a move as she took the stage to ABBA's "Dancing Queen."
She reached out to voters whose living standards have been squeezed by stagnating incomes and public-spending cuts since the 2008 global financial crisis. In a major policy shift, May said the government would abandon its long-held policy of slashing public spending in the name of deficit reduction.
"A decade after the financial crash, people need to know that the austerity it led to is over," she said. She painted an optimistic picture of post-Brexit Britain, saying "our future is full of promise."
It was an upbeat end to an anxious Conservative conference in Birmingham, central England. A week ago, the opposition Labour Party met in Liverpool, at an event brimming with energy and confidence. The Conservatives, in contrast, were full of doubt. Many delegates lamented the fact that Brexit has drowned out the party's message on housing, taxation, health care and other big issues.
While pro-Brexit delegates railed against May's compromises and the iniquities of Brussels, pro-EU Tories claimed Brexit had tainted the party with an inward-looking image that turns off voters, especially the young.
May's speech was welcomed by many in a party worn down by Brexit bickering. "It was not just about Brexit — she gave a vision for the country for the future," said Rishi Fernando from London. "This has definitely increased my respect for her."
But May's future remains uncertain. Many Conservatives expect her to face a leadership challenge soon after Brexit day — or even before. Pro-Brexit legislator James Duddridge on Wednesday called the Brexit negotiations "an absolute disaster" and said he had added his name to a list of Conservative lawmakers demanding a confidence vote in the prime minister.
A vote will be triggered if 48 legislators ask for one. No one knows yet how many have already submitted their requests. "We need a strong leader and we haven't got that at the moment," Duddridge said.