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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Theresa May faces leadership questions on China flight

British prime minister declares she is "not a quitter"  as she embarks on trade mission to China

epa06487992 British Prime Minister Theresa May (L) and Li Keqiang, China's premier, listen to speakers during the CEO council at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 31 January 2018. May is leading the largest business delegation her government has ever taken overseas as she seeks to put her Brexit troubles aside and make progress on boosting the UK's trade.  EPA/CHRIS RATCLIFFE / POOL
epa06487992 British Prime Minister Theresa May (L) and Li Keqiang, China's premier, listen to speakers during the CEO council at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 31 January 2018. May is leading the largest business delegation her government has ever taken overseas as she seeks to put her Brexit troubles aside and make progress on boosting the UK's trade. EPA/CHRIS RATCLIFFE / POOL

When a political leader is asked to compare themselves to a lion or tortoise, it's generally a signal that a crisis is afoot and they are fighting for their job.

British prime minister Theresa May conceded on Wednesday she would have to do a better job of selling her government strengths as she embarked on a trip to China amid a leadership crisis at home. In a sign that her woes run deeper than faulty control of the message, the follow-up questioning included the query about her reptile versus feline inclinations.

“I have never tried to compare myself to any animal, or bird or car or whatever sort of comparisons that sometimes people use,” Mrs May told the travelling press pack as she flew with a business delegation to China. "I am not a quitter and there's a long-term job to be done.

"I am doing what I believe is important for the sake of the country,” she added, raising the particular challenge of the British exit from the EU, which is due to take place in March next year. "[It’s] about getting the best Brexit deal, it's about ensuring that we take back control of our money, our laws, our borders, that we can sign trade deals around the rest of the world."

Peppered with questions over how many Conservative colleagues were lined up to support a vote on her leadership, Mrs May also listed a set achievements designed to alleviate a squeeze on ordinary workers, including an increase in minimum wages and special concessions on taxes on house purchases.

The trip to China is an important showcase for Mrs May who needs to show that London can engage as trading nation and win new deals beyond Europe’s borders. After David Cameron, Mrs May’s predecessor, set out his goal of a “golden era” in the relationship, the focus on China was lost after the shock Brexit result. Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, reassured Mrs May that he had “faith in the brighter prospects of China-UK ties" and urged London to be a champion of globalisation.

But even as the press conference was taking place in Beijing, Mrs May’s authority over the government was being questioned by one of her own ministers who openly called for a rethink in the Brexit strategy. "The PM has been dealt some tough cards and I support her mission to make the best of them,” said Philip Lee, a justice minister. “It’s time for evidence, not dogma, to show the way. We must act for our country’s best interests, not ideology and populism, or history will judge us harshly. Our country deserves no less.”

Another Conservative, Robert Halfon, was the author of the tortoise jibe when he and two colleagues called for a 3Hs (Health, Housing and Higher Education) reset of government policy. Mrs May, he suggested, should shed her caution and emerge as a lion on these issues.

Mrs May’s catch-cry in last year’s disastrous general election, which cost the Conservatives a majority in parliament, was “nothing has changed”.

There is mounting evidence of a shift in attitudes about Mrs May’s leadership.

The party’s own online forum for debate and analysis, Conservative Home, this week reported growing support for her departure in its regular survey.

“Last month, seven per cent of respondents said that the Prime Minister should quit Downing Street now, and 52 per cent were of the view that she should do so before the next election takes place. 40 per cent were opposed to both proposals,” it said.

In just one month the number believing she should quit immediately had risen to 26.2 per cent, and was now equal to those who believed she should not go.

Commentator Rafael Behr believes Mrs May’s troubles lie in her essentially passive character, which cannot hold at bay the raging division between party factions forever.

“The current outbreak of regicidal fever is distinct from previous bouts because it isn’t triggered by anything the prime minister has done,” he wrote. “Stagnation makes Tory MPs panic more than explosive crisis because it can’t be blamed on misfortune or enemy action.

“She does not see herself as a caretaker [but] they have no confidence in her to be anything else.”

A university contemporary of Mrs May said the prime minister’s qualities have not changed since her earliest days in politics. “When will people realise there is less to Theresa than meets the eye?” he asked. “She mistakes inactivity for steeliness and has to use other people’s ideas to muddle through.”

Mrs May’s most formidable ally remains the right-wing press, in particular the Daily Mail. Its leader column lashed out at the “hysteria-gripped Westminster bubble” on Wednesday but could only offer faint praise. “True, her leadership style is less than inspiring,” it said. “But under her management the economy continues to grow steadily. She has also confounded her critics by steering the Brexit talks through their first phase, while laying the groundwork for what could be a highly beneficial trade agreement with the US after we pull out.”

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