| LONDON, June 9
LONDON, June 9 It was never meant to be a
high-stakes gamble for Britain's risk-averse prime minister, but
Theresa May's attempt to strengthen her leadership by calling an
early election has instead left her authority in tatters.
With results showing May's Conservatives have lost their
majority in parliament, party members blamed what one called a
"just awful" campaign, training their ire on an election team
that highlighted the 60-year-old's flaws by sticking doggedly to
an agreed script instead of masking her weaknesses.
Without the desired larger majority, May -- if she stays on
-- will now be in the thrall of two wings of her party that
oppose her plans to leave the European Union: "purists" who want
a clean break with the bloc and "remainers" who are pressing for
closer ties, two Conservative sources said.
That throws into doubt the complex talks on Britain's
departure from the EU that are due to begin in just 10 days.
"We overestimated our match-fit status. We overestimated the
campaign team at the top. We believed the polls and we were
cocky," said one senior Conservative source, speaking on
condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.
Instead of betting on the size of the majority, party
insiders were now putting money on when the prime minister would
quit, less than a year after she was propelled into Downing
Street following Britain's shock decision to exit the EU.
"It will be interesting to see who is left standing. Cat
fight deluxe," the source told Reuters.
In April, the political landscape was very different.
After a holiday in Wales, May said she had reluctantly
decided to bring forward the election by three years to
strengthen her hand in negotiations with the EU, talks which
will reshape Britain's role in the world and that of a bloc
praised by many for ensuring peace after World War Two.
Her decision, reluctant or not, seemed at the time to
promise a sure-fire win for a leader who had never led her party
into an election.
Opinion polls gave her sky-high personal ratings and her
party a runaway lead over the opposition Labour Party. They
seemed to offer her a cushion to do something she rarely does:
change her mind after weeks of vowing no early poll.
Surprised by the U-turn, one former co-worker, Tony Smith,
said last month that May must have "taken her time out and gone
away to think about it" before making the decision.
"Once she has, you won't find any prevarication there. I
don't think you'll see in her memoirs 'Oh I'm not sure whether I
should've called that election back then'," said Smith, the
former head of Britain's Border Force who worked closely with
May in organising security checks for the London 2012 Olympics.
After winning her parliamentary seat, May said on Friday her
Conservative Party would take responsibility for delivering
stability if it won the most seats in the election.
"If, as the indications have shown, and if this is correct
that the Conservative Party has won the most seats and probably
the most votes then it will be incumbent on us to ensure that we
have that period of stability and that is exactly what we will
do," May said, without explicitly mentioning her own role.
But the outcome will have put paid to the image her aides
sought to portray. The "bloody difficult woman" who promised to
be "strong and stable" looks anything but.
The senior Conservative source blamed the party's
over-dependency on the tight messaging demanded by election guru
Lynton Crosby for failing to endear May to voters weary of
elections and rattled by two militant attacks in as many weeks.
More geared to messaging than policy, Crosby, alongside
business partner and pollster Mark Textor, wanted to bring
strict discipline to the campaign, sticking to party slogans and
attacking Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain's main opposition
Labour party, sources said.
They wanted the campaign to focus on May and a clear message
that only she could be trusted. At first it seemed to work, but
May's decision to introduce a new policy which would see people
pay more towards their elderly care was a turning point.
The policy went down badly with voters and was attacked by
the opposition as an unfair "dementia tax". A local campaign
manager in northern England complained that May's closest aides
Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill "had never met a real person in
their life" and had badly misread the electorate with the plan.
With the Labour Party campaigning on policies such as ending
university fees and boosting the police, the slide in the
opinion polls for the Conservatives had begun.
By the end of the seven week run-up, May had earned the
moniker "Maybot" for her robotic performances, was openly mocked
by audience members at a question-and-answer session and jeered
during a tour of a London meat market.
She ended her election campaign with a rally in a half-empty
conference hall on the outskirts of Britain's second city,
Birmingham. Her advisers said there were 800 activists cheering
her on. A Reuters witness put the number closer to 250.
"Corbyn ran a way better campaign, he got to more places and
got more people to come out to his rallies," said Labour
supporter Alisa Hall outside the London building where Corbyn's
votes were counted. "It showed. People weren't excited to go and
see Theresa May at a rally."
(Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan, Kate Holton and Jon
Coffey; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Nick Tattersall)