LONDON (AFP) — After losing yet another vote on her Brexit deal on Friday and accused on all sides of plunging Britain into chaos, Prime Minister Theresa May’s leadership is hanging by a thread.
The politician who portrayed herself as a safe pair of hands when she rose to power in 2016 in the aftermath of Brexit has all but lost control after mishandling every twist and turn of the process.
The Conservative leader has in the past won praise for her determination and ability to survive what has often felt like a three-year political crisis ever since the referendum vote to leave the European Union.
But her approach to the endgame, refusing to accept MPs’ trenchant opposition to her divorce deal and delaying Brexit to keep trying, has prompted frustration and anger on all sides.
In a final desperate move on Wednesday she said she would step down if MPs approved her deal in a bid to appease the Brexiteer wing of her party.
Now that MPs have voted against the deal, few believe her leadership can survive, and various potential contenders have begun jockeying for position.
‘Getting on with the job’
The daughter of a Church of England vicar, May was born on October 1, 1956 in Eastbourne — a seaside town in southern England where her father was a chaplain at the local hospital.
She has described herself in interviews as a “goody two shoes” whose Protestant faith defined her upbringing.
She listened to cricket matches on the radio with her father and knew that she wanted to become a politician when she was just 12.
May studied geography and met her husband Philip at Oxford university before joining the Bank of England.
The two never had children and May devoted herself to a life of public service that saw her become Conservative Party chairwoman in 2002.
May made her first splash by telling her Tories at an annual conference to stop being “the nasty party” if they wanted to unseat then-popular Labour leader Tony Blair.
But her 2010-16 stint as home secretary saw May adopt isolationist rhetoric that included a vow to create “a really hostile environment for illegal migration.”
She took office in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum which swept away her predecessor David Cameron.
Despite having campaigned to stay in the EU, she 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 and a few close aides, May often says 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.
‘Zombie prime minister’
However, May has been written off before.
She has 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.
She won a leadership challenge within her own party in December, a victory that made her immune from a similar challenge for a year, even if she had to promise to quit before the next scheduled election in 2022.
As a result, it is not clear how MPs might depose her now if she refuses to quit.
May’s critics are deeply divided, and their inability to unite behind a rival candidate has foiled previous attempted coups.
Columnist Matthew Parris, a former Conservative MP, has described her ability to stagger on despite multiple attacks, calling her the “zombie prime minister.”