LONDON (AFP) – Accused of presiding over an unprecedented national humiliation in her chaotic handling of Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s hold on power appears increasingly endangered.
The Conservative leader has in the past won praise for her determination and ability to survive what has often felt like one long political crisis since the 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union (EU).
But her approach to the Brexit endgame, doggedly seeking to force through Parliament her divorce deal despite MPs twice rejecting it and agreeing to delay Britain’s planned March 29 departure, has prompted frustration and anger on all sides.
Following a particularly chaotic last week even for May’s crisis-plagued tenure, speculation is rife that Conservative colleagues are trying to force her to resign.
The Sunday Times reported she was “at the mercy of a full-blown cabinet coup”, with plans afoot for her de facto deputy David Lidington to take over in a caretaker capacity.
The newspaper said it had spoken to 11 senior ministers who “confirmed that they wanted the Prime Minister to make way for someone else” and planned to confront her at a Cabinet Meeting yesterday.
To May’s critics, her uncompromising attitude in the face of a faltering strategy encapsulates her broader limitations as a political leader at this pivotal moment.
“At first she appeared to be a unifier, but she turned out to have too little courage, imagination or skill to lead the Brexit negotiations,” said a recent editorial in the Conservative-backing Spectator magazine.
It has reluctantly urged MPs to back May’s unpopular deal, but only so that Britain could “turn the page on this unhappy chapter of our political history”.
May took office after the 2016 referendum, and despite having campaigned to stay in the EU, embraced the cause with the mantra “Brexit means Brexit”.
Her promise to leave the EU’s institutions and end free movement of workers delighted eurosceptic MPs, but caused dismay among many pro-Europeans.
The splits in her Conservative party became a serious problem after a disastrous snap election in June 2017, when May lost her parliamentary majority.
She was forced to strike a deal with Northern Ireland’s pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and since then has struggled to keep her party and its allies together.
Naturally reserved and reliant on her husband Philip and a few close aides, May often said she is just quietly “getting on with the job”.
But in the last election, she struggled to engage with voters and was dubbed the “Maybot” after churning out the same answers and speeches over and over again.
Matthew Parris, an anti-Brexit former Conservative MP who now writes for The Times, said he once thought May was merely an “unremarkable” politician dealing with a tough situation.
But he said her inability to engage with colleagues had exacerbated divisions over Brexit, describing her as “the living embodiment of the closed door”.
May survived a confidence vote in December among her own MPs over her Brexit deal and is immune from a similar challenge for a year.
She was forced to promise to quit before the next scheduled election in 2022, however, and even then, one third of her MPs voted to unseat her.
Meanwhile, her EU divorce deal remains deeply disliked.
Given her waning authority, “her hinting she’ll go if she loses doesn’t help her”, said Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London, who predicts her deal will be sunk again if it is brought back for vote.
But May has been written off before.
She survived the resignations of a string of high-profile Brexit supporters, notably former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, and has endured constant sniping from MPs on the sidelines.