Tenacious May risks reputation on UK election gamble

Looks to some like political shortsightedness

LONDON — Theresa May is often compared to Margaret Thatcher, depicted by supporters as a 21st-century Iron Lady. But a bruising election campaign has dented her steely reputation.

Britain’s 60-year-old prime minister called a snap election — three years early — for this Thursday in a bid to increase her party’s slim majority in Parliament and strengthen her hand in divorce negotiations with the European Union.

It looked like a clever, confident move by a leader whose party was as much as 20 points ahead of the Labour Party opposition in opinion polls.

But after a campaign scarred by two deadly attacks in Britain, lacklustre media appearances and misjudged policy announcements, it looks to some like evidence of hubris and political shortsightedness.

May was first elected to Parliament in 1997, and soon established a reputation for unflashy competence and a knack for vanquishing her rivals.

In 2002, she warned Conservatives that many voters saw them as the “nasty party.” Unlike the arch free-marketeer Thatcher, May often speaks of giving the poor a helping hand and lifting barriers to social mobility.

While Thatcher was a groundbreaking woman who disparaged feminism, May helped set up Women2Win, a group that aims to bring more women into Parliament.

May’s sense of social responsibility was nourished by her upbringing as the child of a rural Anglican vicar. In contrast to predecessor David Cameron, who was the wealthy product of elite private schools, she represents what’s often called “middle England” — middle-class, middlebrow in taste, middle-of-the-road in politics.

She enjoys cooking and walking in the mountains with her husband Philip, whom she met at Oxford University. Her only touches of flamboyance are fondness for bold outfits and brightly patterned kitten-heel shoes.

When Cameron became prime minister in 2010, he made May home secretary, and she held the post for six years — an unusually long time in a notoriously thankless job, responsible for borders, immigration and law and order.

She wasn’t afraid to make herself unpopular. In 2012, she was booed at a police convention over cuts to forces’ budgets. Those cuts came back to haunt May after a bomber killed 22 people in Manchester on May 22, leaving her open to accusations of weakening the country’s security. Allegations that May had compromised national security grew louder after three attackers killed seven people in the London Bridge area less than a week before the vote.

May became prime minister partly by skill and partly by luck. She emerged victorious from a bitter and chaotic Conservative Party leadership contest after Britain’s June 2016 decision to leave the European Union. May had backed the losing “remain” side in the referendum, but promised as leader to respect voters’ will: “Brexit means Brexit,” she said.

With her determination and self-belief, May was able to unite the fractious Conservative Party, split between mutually hostile pro-EU and anti-EU wings.

But the party’s unity now looks fragile.

An election campaign built around May’s stature has exposed her flaws. She often appears stiff and has relied almost robotically on catchphrases like “strong and stable government” for her time in office, and “coalition of chaos” when referring to her rival, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Her refusal to take part in television debates has led to allegations that she is running scared.

The Conservative Party’s election manifesto, which carries May’s imprimatur, has been accused of offering voters all stick and no carrot. It contained electorally damaging plans to cut benefits to pensioners and change the way they pay for long-term care. Opponents dubbed that a “dementia tax,” and the label has stuck.

As the polls have relentlessly narrowed, critics say the policy blunder shows a lack of political instinct that could cost May dear on June 8.

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