Prime minister’s former intern reflects on Brexit
n June, the people of the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union, and Laura McElwain Colquhoun ’99 stayed up late to watch the results. In what would become a year of missed predictions and political upsets, Londoners were shocked at the results, but at home in Pasadena, Maryland, Colquhoun saw it coming.
As a first-year political science student at Goucher, Colquhoun took a class on British politics with Professor Marianne Githens, who asked if she was interested in doing her study abroad in London. The Hansard Society, a British charity, was offering American students the chance
to intern with Members of Parliament. Colquhoun said yes.
The British MPs were asked to choose interns from a pile of resumes. Colquhoun was picked by a brand new member of the House of Commons, one who would go on to become the United Kingdom’s second- ever female Prime Minister: Theresa May.
May didn’t appear to be in it for the limelight, like some of the many U.S. politicians Colquhoun has since worked for.
And the MP was eager to learn. As part of the study abroad requirements, Colquhoun completed an independent research project on citizenship and immigration, areas May professed to know little about. So Colquhoun prepared a three-page memo for May, who was surprised to learn she was a British citizen. May thought Brits were subjects of Her Majesty, even though the laws changed following WW II.
“It struck me—oh my gosh, here I am, a 20-year-old American intern telling a British Member of Parliament that she’s a British citizen,” Colquhoun says, laughing. She started to believe change comes so slowly to the UK that people don’t even notice when it happens.
But change has arrived abruptly now, and the people have noticed. Colquhoun has long worked in political messaging, and believes Brexit supporters were embarrassed to admit the truth to pollsters. That, along with a dose of denial, is why the “Remain” side—made mostly of city dwellers, the media, and public officials— didn’t mount an aggressive enough campaign.
When David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister this summer, several members of the Conservative Party put their names in to replace him, but soon only May was left standing. Colquhoun, who returned briefly to work for the MP a second time in 2002, is confident in May’s ability to lead during Brexit. She believes it speaks to May’s integrity that even though she campaigned for the UK to remain, she has nonetheless pledged to follow the will of the people and begin the process of leaving the EU.
“She thinks when she speaks,” Colquhoun says. “She’s a successful, coalition-building politician.” Colquhoun, who is taking a break from politics for now to be a stay-at-home mom and part-time mystery shopper, says that recently, friends reminded her that back in 1997
she predicted May would one day become Prime Minister. She doesn’t remember saying it, but like much that happens in politics, it doesn’t surprise her.