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Dogged Theresa May ignores doubts about historic Brexit mission

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Mrs May's ability to keep intact her policies and composure through a cascade of crises have drawn invariable comparisons to the iron will of the late Margaret Thatcher.

London

THERESA May wants to go down in history as the prime minister who safely steered Britain out of Europe - a cause she did not believe in when the Brexit referendum was held.

The internal struggles and contradictions of the daughter of a vicar reflect those tearing apart her island nation before its March divorce from the European Union (EU). The Financial Times has wondered whether the 62-year-old could be "Britain's Angela Merkel" - the German leader who embodies Europe - while an op-ed in the Independent condemned her for waging an "anti-immigrant vendetta".

Her ability to keep intact her policies and composure through a cascade of crises have drawn invariable comparisons to the iron will of the late Margaret Thatcher.

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It is a doggedness that permeates Mrs May's entire demeanour.

Mrs May described herself in a 2012 interview as a "goody two shoes" whose Protestant faith defined her upbringing.

She studied geography and met her husband Philip at Oxford before joining England's central bank. The two never had children and Mrs May devoted herself to a life of public service that saw her become Conservative Party chairwoman in 2002.

Mrs May made her first splash by telling her Tories at an annual conference to stop being "the nasty party" if they wanted to unseat then-popular Labour leader Tony Blair.

But her 2010-16 stint as Home Secretary saw Mrs May adopt isolationist rhetoric that included a vow to create "a really hostile environment for illegal migration".

Yet Mrs May's own faith in a "great, global" Britain did not translate into a rejection of the EU as a whole. She wanted to retake control of Britain's laws and borders while keeping London a magnet of world talent and financial wealth.

Mrs May did not campaign for the "Leave" vote ahead of the 2016 referendum and made clear on several occasions that Britain benefited from staying in the world's largest single market. "Britain is too small a country to cope outside the European Union," she said in an April 2016 address.

Mrs May later told a private Goldman Sachs gathering that "the economic arguments are clear" for Britain staying in the bloc. But Britons voted to split by a 52-48 margin and Mrs May took over from David Cameron as prime minister after winning a 2016 leadership contest in which she proclaimed: "Brexit means Brexit". It became her mantra - a gritty determination to bear down and get the job done no matter the political cost.

That job got immeasurably harder after Mrs May made the mistake of calling a snap June 2017 election that she hoped would lay to waste domestic opposition to her Brexit plans. She ended up losing her majority and entering a forced marriage of convenience with Northern Ireland's fervently anti-EU Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The dysfunctional relationship broke down for good when the DUP came out against the watered-down Brexit deal Mrs May hopes to push through Parliament on Tuesday.

Her attachment to the withdrawal papers she signed with Brussels is shared by few in London. Pundits are counting down the prime minister's days in office and the fate of Brexit itself is clear to none. AFP