LONDON: Theresa May wants to go down in history as the prime minister who safely steered Britain out of Europe — a cause she did not believe in when the Brexit referendum was held.
The internal struggles and contradictions of the Oxford-educated daughter of a vicar reflect those tearing apart her island nation before its March divorce from the EU.
The Financial Times has wondered whether the 62-year-old could be “Britain’s Angela Merkel” — the German leader who embodies Europe — while an op-ed in the Independent condemned her for waging an “anti-immigrant vendetta”.
Her ability to keep intact her policies and composure through a cascade of crises have drawn invariable comparisons to the iron will of the late Margaret Thatcher.
It is a doggedness that permeates May’s entire demeanour — a perceived robotic mannerism and monotone that earned her the “Maybot” moniker.
‘Goody two shoes’
May described herself in a 2012 interview 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 before joining England’s central bank.
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”.
“In the UK illegally?” asked one advert the Home Office put on a couple of vans that drove around the country in 2013.
“Go home or face arrest.”
‘Too small to cope’
Yet May’s own faith in a “great, global” Britain did not translate into a rejection of the European Union as a whole.
She wanted to retake control of Britain’s laws and borders while keeping London a magnet of world talent and financial wealth.
May did not campaign for the “Leave” vote ahead of the 2016 referendum and made clear on several occasions that Britain benefited from staying in the world’s largest single market.
“Britain is too small a country to cope outside the European Union,” she said in an April 2016 address.
May later told a private Goldman Sachs gathering that “the economic arguments are clear” for Britain staying in the bloc.
“There are definitely things we can do as members of the European Union that I think keep us more safe,” she said in remarks that were later leaked to the press.
‘Brexit means Brexit’
But Britons voted to split by a 52-48 margin and May took over from David Cameron as prime minister after winning a 2016 leadership contest in which she proclaimed: “Brexit means Brexit”.
It became her mantra — a gritty determination to bear down and get the job done no matter the political cost.
That job got immeasurably harder after May made the mistake of calling a snap June 2017 election that she hoped would lay to waste domestic opposition to her Brexit plans.
She ended up losing her majority and entering a forced marriage of convenience with Northern Ireland’s tiny and fervently anti-EU Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The dysfunctional relationship broke down for good when the DUP came out against the watered-down Brexit deal May hopes to push through parliament on Tuesday.
May’s attachment to the withdrawal papers she signed with Brussels is shared by few in London. Pundits are counting down her days in office and the fate of Brexit itself is clear to none.
It is a political crisis of a generation — and one that finds May trying to will her Brexit deal over the line.
“This argument has gone on long enough,” she told hooting and hollering lawmakers during the opening Brexit debate Tuesday.
“It is corrosive to our politics and life depends on compromise.”