LONDON: Prime Minister Theresa May presented herself as a stable leader to take Britain through Brexit, but her gamble of an election backfired and has left her deeply wounded.
The Conservative Party 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.
“She ran a pretty dreadful campaign,” said Conservative lawmaker Anna Soubry as the shock results rolled in, calling on May to “consider her position”.
“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 offered little in the way of a positive vision to voters.
Two terror attacks gave her 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.
After seeking permission from Queen Elizabeth II to form a new government, May pointedly made no reference to her party’s damaging losses, leading the Evening Standard, edited by former Tory finance minister George Osborne, to splash the front-page headline “Queen of Denial”.
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 earned a reputation as a dogged minister 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 form all sides of the Conservative party when Cameron stepped down.
Proving her commitment, May began the formal process of leaving the EU in March, promising to pull Britain out of Europe’s single market in order to cut immigration.
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 Labour 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.
“She didn’t do enough to engage,” said Gus McKay, a 38-year-old voter in London.
Voters ‘caught off guard’
May once famously warned the Conservatives when she was party chairman that they were seen as “nasty”, and as prime minister promised a new domestic approach.
She targeted Labour-supporting seats that had backed Brexit, wooing them with promises to rein executive pay and cap utility bills, and refused to rule out tax rises.
But she drew accusations 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.
Her competence also came under fire following attacks in London and Manchester, amid warnings that police and security forces did not have the funds to do their job.
“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.”