LONDON: Prime Minister Theresa May presented herself as a stable leader to take Britain through Brexit, but her gamble on an election backfired and has left her deeply wounded.
The Conservative leader refused to resign after losing her party’s parliamentary majority in Thursday’s vote, but has suffered a humiliation from which she will struggle to recover.
“It is clear that this election has left her authority deeply wounded, perhaps fatally,” said Paul Goodman, a former lawmaker and editor of the ConservativeHome website.
May called the election three years early in the hope of building on her sky-high personal poll ratings, and focused the campaign around her own leadership qualities.
But her no-nonsense image crumbled under the scrutiny as she was forced to backtrack on a key manifesto promise, and she offered little in the way of a positive vision to voters.
Two terror attacks gave the 60-year-old an opportunity to show her strength but also drew questions over her six years as interior minister, when she oversaw cuts to police numbers.
Like her predecessor David Cameron, who called the Brexit referendum in June last year in the mistaken confidence he would win the vote to stay in the EU, she will now be remembered for her hubris.
“It was a self-inflicted error, a self-inflicted wound and it was something that was likely born out of a bit of taking the British public for granted,” Brian Klaas of the London School of Economics (LSE) told AFP.
Awkward public manner
When May replaced Cameron after the Brexit vote, she presented herself as a steady hand on the tiller as Britain headed into uncharted waters.
She was the hard-working vicar’s daughter who eschewed gossip and focused on “getting the job done,” with her flamboyant shoes the only sign of rebellion.
May studied geography at the University of Oxford — where she met her husband Philip — before working in finance, including at the Bank of England.
She entered parliament in 1997 as MP for the wealthy London commuter seat of Maidenhead, and swiftly rose from the ranks.
May earned a reputation as a dogged worker when leading the interior ministry — one of the toughest jobs in politics — and was also viewed as a shrewd political operator.
She opposed Brexit but took a back seat in the campaign, allowing her to win support from all sides of the Conservative party when Cameron stepped down.
She took a tough line against Brussels on the campaign trail, describing herself as a “bloody difficult woman” and warning she was willing to walk away from the talks if she could not get a good deal.
But over weeks of campaign events she drew accusations of being robotic, over-reliant on slogans and soundbites, and so awkward around members of the public that she even boycotted television debates.
By contrast, Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, derided in the right-wing media as a socialist has-been, drew large rallies and many young people with a message of ending austerity.
Voters ‘caught off guard’
May once famously warned the Conservatives when she was party chairwoman that they were seen as “nasty,” and as prime minister promised a new domestic approach.
She targeted Labor-supporting seats that had backed Brexit, wooing them with promises to end excessive executive pay and cap utility bills, and refused to rule out tax rises.
But she was accused of abandoning her core support with a manifesto plan for elderly social care that would have hit wealthy pensioners, and on which she was forced to backtrack.
“Saying and doing nothing for nine months let voters project whatever they liked on to this new kind of prime minister,” wrote commentator Matt Chorley in The Times.
“When the manifesto landed, many were suddenly caught off guard by the revelation that she was a Tory (Conservative), and not a very nice one or a good one.”
She and her banker husband Philip — to whom she was reportedly introduced by future Pakistan premier Benazir Bhutto — have never had children, saying it “just didn’t happen.”
May’s vicar father died when she was 25, in a car accident, followed a year later by her mother, who had multiple sclerosis.
In 2013, May revealed she has type 1 diabetes, but insisted it would not affect her career.