Theresa May sat quietly sipping tea in the corner of a small room at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester last October. The British prime minister had just delivered a speech meant to restore her authority over a ruling party that was sliding in the polls and riven by the country’s decision to leave the European Union. It had gone disastrously. A prankster handed her a fake notice of dismissal, she struggled with a persistent cough and even the slogan behind her, “BUILDING A COUNTRY THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE,” failed when several letters fell to the floor, prompting giggles from the audience. Her grip on power had never looked weaker.

When May’s speech writer at the time, Chris Wilkins, entered the room where the prime minister was sitting with her husband and a handful of aides, the atmosphere was strained, he said. He briefly wondered if she was on the point of quitting. But May shrugged. “She said, ‘There's nothing I could do about it. It wasn’t my fault. It's one ...

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