LONDON - Theresa May’s political obituary has been written many times during her time as Britain’s prime minister, but her hold on the ruling Conservative Party looks shakier by the day.
This week, the week before the unveiling of the country’s annual budget, she may face her biggest challenge with all wings of her fractious party in open revolt and baying for her blood.
She is due to face "backbench" lawmakers of her party in what could turn out to be a make-or-break encounter. A challenge to her party leadership would automatically be triggered if 48 lawmakers deliver letters calling for a leadership vote to the chairman of the party, and 46 have done so, say Conservative insiders.
“She had better bring her own noose,” one Conservative lawmaker told the British media. Others have spoken of the possibility of the meeting turning into a “show trial.”
The immediate cause for May’s predicament is Brexit and how she has conducted negotiations with the European Union in tortuous talks with Brussels. Both hardcore Brexiters, who want a sharp break with the bloc, and so-called Remainers, who want to maintain close ties amounting to backdoor membership, are disappointed with the course of the talks and want to kill any deal with the European Union they don’t like.
Brexiters argue May is not sufficiently tough with Brussels and is being hoodwinked by European negotiators to tie Britain too closely to the bloc after it exits next March by agreeing to remain in a customs union during a transition period when a new trading relationship with its largest market is negotiated.
Last week, May said she was ready to agree to a temporary customs union to avoid the reimposition of customs checks on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Border checks would upend the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to decades of strife in Northern Ireland.
As more Conservative lawmakers call for May to stand aside, British officials are war-gaming the political consequences for a possible second Brexit referendum. On Saturday as many as 700,000 people attended a rally in London to call for a referendum on the final Brexit deal. The protest was also supported by a number of lawmakers who want a fresh vote, something that has been ruled out by May.
May has faced revolts before, notably after the resignations of Boris Johnson as foreign minister and David Davis as Brexit minister earlier this year. Tight management of the party’s annual conference this month headed off any serious clashes.
May appears to thrive under extreme pressure. No one is counting her out.
Speaking Sunday to the BBC, Grant Shapps, a former Conservative Party chairman, who once tried to organize a coup against her, said he thought the week ahead was highly dangerous. “It’s fairly high on the scale, but she operates at the upper end of that scale almost every day of her life and, remarkably, walks out at the other end,” he said.
Britain’s ruling Conservatives hold office thanks to support from a quirky right-wing Northern Irish party, the Democratic Unionist Party. Conservative revolts against May have petered out in the past with the conspirators fearing it would collapse the government and trigger a snap general election the opposition Labor Party is in a strong position to win.
Aside from the Brexit negotiations, May’s government has encountered several unexpected and mishandled events, knocking public confidence in her leadership. Her government was widely criticized for its managing of the aftermath of the fire that consumed the Grenfell Tower residential block last year in London.
Earlier this year, May and her ministers had to scramble to shed allegations of immigration racism in their treatment of Britain's so-called “Windrush Generation,” the name given to an influx of at least 50,000 migrants from a dozen Caribbean countries from 1948 to 1971. Many of the elderly migrants faced deportation threats, despite a law passed in 1971 granting them the right to live and work in Britain indefinitely.
But Brexit has been a deadly pill for May. She has made various efforts to define what the terms of exit the government wants and what kind of future relationship Britain should have with the European Union, only to be undermined by her warring Cabinet and party or by EU officials.
On Sunday, May held an unscheduled conference call with her Cabinet ministers. Three ministers voiced grave doubts about her current Brexit plan, according to Conservative insiders.
In the House of Commons Monday, May sought to rally Conservative lawmakers to get behind her, insisting “95 percent of the withdrawal agreement and its protocols are now settled.”
May’s supporters are warning to oust her now would wreck the incomplete negotiations and possibly turn everything back while the party spends months electing a successor. “This is really a moment for calm, level heads. We have got to get through the last bit of negotiation,” said Chris Grayling, Britain's transport minister.