International

Britain's Theresa May, a survivor under constant pressure

Dogged by party divisions, endless plotting and caught in the quagmire of Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May's political obituary has been written many times.

Prime Minister Theresa May, who turns 62 on Monday, studied geography at the University of Oxford, before working in finance, including at the Bank of England
Prime Minister Theresa May, who turns 62 on Monday, studied geography at the University of Oxford, before working in finance, including at the Bank of England (POOL/Getty Images/File)

Dogged by party divisions, endless plotting and caught in the quagmire of Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May's political obituary has been written many times.

But the Conservative leader has proved a remarkable survivor.

May took over in the chaotic aftermath of Britain's historic 2016 vote to leave the European Union, and her tenure has been no less turbulent.

She moved within months to start the Brexit process and sought to bolster her domestic political position with a snap election in June last year.

This spectacularly backfired and she lost her majority in the House of Commons, leaving her reliant on a Northern Irish party to govern.

Since then, her party's pro- and anti-Brexit factions have taken turns to flex their muscles, seeking to influence her strategy and bringing her government to the brink.

Each time they have proved unwilling to deal the fatal blow, but tensions are rising again as the Brexit negotiations reach their final stretch.

'Don't underestimate Theresa May'

She once described herself as a "bloody difficult woman", and her foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said this week: "Don't underestimate Theresa May."

May, who turns 62 on Monday, studied geography at the University of Oxford, before working in finance, including at the Bank of England.

She met her husband Philip, a banker, at Oxford after reportedly being introduced by future Pakistan premier Benazir Bhutto.

Not long after their marriage, May's vicar father died in a car accident, followed a year later by her mother, who had multiple sclerosis.

The Mays, who were unable to have children, lead a quiet life, going to church on Sundays in the wealthy London commuter seat of Maidenhead, which she has represented in parliament since 1997.

They spend their holidays hiking, and the prime minister enjoys cooking and reading detective novels.

When asked once what was the naughtiest thing she had ever done, May admitted to running through fields of wheat as a child.

She highlights her steady image and emphasis on "getting on with the job" rather than gossiping and networking.

But she often seems ill at ease with world leaders, and her awkwardness with the public -- the media dubbed her the "Maybot" -- was widely blamed for the disastrous 2017 election.

May survived six years as interior minister before entering Downing Street, one of the toughest jobs in British politics.

But she has since drawn criticism for overseeing major cuts to police budgets, a growing political issue amid rising crime and after a string of terror attacks.

And while her tough line on immigration reflected the public mood, it led to a scandal this year over the deportations of legitimate Commonwealth-born Britons.

'The nasty party'

As Britain's second female prime minister, May has been compared to fellow Conservative Margaret Thatcher, but has struck a different tone from the free market-backing "Iron Lady".

As Conservative chairwoman in 2002, she famously warned colleagues they were seen as "the nasty party".

In her first Conservative conference speech as leader in 2016 she railed against global elites, while her election manifesto rejected "untrammelled free markets".

However, the all-encompassing process of preparing for Brexit has squeezed out any domestic agenda, meaning Britain's withdrawal from the EU will inevitably be her legacy.