One Year On, Theresa May Keeps Fragile Grip On Her Job As British Prime Minister | KUOW News and Information

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

Jul 18, 2017
Originally published on July 18, 2017 8:28 pm

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

A new YouGov poll shows 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 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Anyone want to be British prime minister? It's a job few politicians seem to want - the head of expected upheaval as the U.K. leaves the European Union. The current prime minister, Theresa May, came close to losing her job in last month's election. Her approval ratings have taken one of the most dramatic nosedives in British polling history. But May vows to soldier on, as NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from London.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Theresa May is not a touchy, feely politician. She can come across as quite formal. Critics call her a May bot. She skipped election debates and prefers scripted speeches to Q&A, and so she had a sort of steely look on her face when a moderator invited questions after a recent speech she gave about improving job security for British workers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you, Prime Minister. We have time for a few questions.

FRAYER: The very first question by TV journalist Robert Peston was a dig at May's job security.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT PESTON: Recent events in your own life - do you think they've made you slightly more sympathetic to insecure employment? And...

FRAYER: May smiled politely. She did not answer the question. Polls had showed 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 a hardline faction in Northern Ireland to stay in power. And now...

JOE TWYMAN: Our latest poll has the Conservatives eight points behind Labour. And this is a big change since the general election.

FRAYER: Joe Twyman is a founding director of the polling company YouGov. He's also tracked May's approval ratings in other European Union countries as she prepares to negotiate Brexit with their leaders.

TWYMAN: Theresa May was as unpopular as Vladimir Putin among German respondents - and so really not a very good position to be in going into these negotiations. The only solace she could perhaps draw from our data was that she still remained more popular than Donald Trump.

FRAYER: That might 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 quite nervous, but May doesn't appear to be re-evaluating.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: Though the result of last month's general election was not what I wanted, those defining beliefs remain. My commitment to change in Britain is undimmed.

FRAYER: May's election slogan was strong, stable leadership, and that's what Britain needs, says political scientist Patrick Diamond, as it enters exit talks with the European Union. But he doesn't think May will be around for very long.

PATRICK DIAMOND: She's not going to be prime minister for a decade. She'll be lucky probably to be prime minister for a couple of years. Her position is very weak.

FRAYER: Diamond says May's Conservatives are frustrated with her, but he says they've decided she serves a purpose for now.

DIAMOND: 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. Having said that, they would also like an election to happen after the Brexit negotiation's been completed.

FRAYER: As time passes, polls show British support for Brexit is waning. Rivals would rather Theresa May dirty her hands with it than them. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE ONE SONG, "TRAP DOOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.