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One Year On, Theresa May Keeps Fragile Grip On Her Job As British Prime Minister

British Prime Minister Theresa May marked a year in office last week. After her party lost parliamentary seats in elections last month, doubts have arisen over how long she'll remain prime minister.
Dan Kitwood
Getty Images
British Prime Minister Theresa May marked a year in office last week. After her party lost parliamentary seats in elections last month, doubts have arisen over how long she'll remain prime minister.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is not a touchy-feely politician. She can come across as quite formal.Critics call hera "Maybot."

May skipped debates with other candidates ahead of last month's general election, and seems to prefer scripted speeches to question-and-answer sessions. So she had a rather steely look on her face when a moderator invited questions after a recent speech she gave in London about improving job security for British workers.

The very first question, by ITV journalist Robert Peston, was a dig at May's job security.

"Recent events in your own life — do you think they've made you slightly more sympathetic to insecure employment?" Peston asked. The audience laughed.

May smiled politely and didn't flinch — but didn't answer the question, either.

Last week, May marked a year in office as Britain's prime minister. Polls had suggested her Conservatives would win more parliamentary seats in last month's election. But May ran such a lackluster campaign that her party lost its majority — and had to do a deal with the ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland to stay in power.

Jeremy Corbyn, who leads the opposition Labour Party,said last week that May "now heads a zombie government, with no ideas, no answers and no leadership. This is a government in name only, having to ask other parties to 'clarify and improve' its policies and delaying most parliamentary business until the autumn."

Anew YouGov pollshows May's Conservatives eight points behind the Labour Party. That means if another election were held tomorrow, May would lose her job.

YouGov has also tracked May's approval ratings in other European Union countries as she prepares to negotiate Brexit with their leaders.

"Theresa May was as unpopular as Vladimir Putin among German respondents," says Joe Twyman, a founding director of YouGov. "Not a very good position to be in, going into these negotiations. The only solace she can perhaps draw from our data is that she still remains more popular than Donald Trump."

That might be enough to make another politician rethink his or her policies. May has advocated for a so-called "hard Brexit" — effectively severing all ties with the EU and all its agencies. That makes some British voters nervous. But May doesn't appear to be re-evaluating.

"Though the result of last month's general election was not what I wanted, those defining beliefs remain," May said in the same recent speech about British workers. "My commitment to change in Britain is undimmed."

May's election slogan was "Strong, stable leadership," and YouTube is full of remixes of her repeating the phrase "strong and stable" over and over in speeches.

"Strong and stable" is exactly what Britain needs as it enters a potentially tumultuous period during exit negotiations with the EU, says Patrick Diamond, a political scientist at Queen Mary University of London. But he doubts May will be around for very long.

"She's not going to be prime minister for a decade. She'd be lucky to be prime minister for a couple years," Diamond says. "Her position is very weak."

May's Conservatives are likely frustrated with her, he says, but have decided she serves a purpose — for now.

"The view in the Conservative Party is, 'We cannot afford to be led into another general election by Theresa May. We have to get rid of her before then,'" Diamond says. "Having said that, they would also like an election to happen after the Brexit negotiations have been completed."

As time passes, polls show British support for Brexit is waning. Rivals would rather see Theresa May dirty her own hands with it — not theirs.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.