LONDON (AFP) - A devastating election and a high-profile speech strewn with mishaps have ignited a leadership crisis for British Prime Minister Theresa May at a critical time as Brexit negotiators push for a deal in Brussels.
A plot by a group of Conservative MPs to oust May was revealed on Friday (Oct 6), reviving memories of the backstabbing which led to the 1990 ouster of Margaret Thatcher.
The Conservative leader has struggled since June when her gamble in calling an election to cement her power backfired spectacularly and she lost her parliamentary majority following a slogan-heavy campaign.
For many Conservatives, it is now a question of when, not if she steps down ahead of the next election in 2022 - and the date most often mentioned is 2019, when Britain is expected to leave the European Union.
"Getting rid of her is like going to the dentist," a government minister was quoted by The Sun as saying.
"You keep putting it off because it's going to be painful but you know you have to do it eventually." But, as parliament returns from recess on Monday, recent events could bring her demise closer.
'This cannot go on'
There have been reports of bitter divisions for weeks and speculation has swirled over whether Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson might mount a leadership bid after his contrary interventions in the Brexit debate.
Johnson was widely praised for his ebullient speech at the party conference but his erratic behaviour has drawn widespread criticism and accusations of betrayal.
Other potential successors include Home Secretary Amber Rudd, while Brexit Secretary David Davis and First Secretary of State Damian Green are seen as possible temporary place-holders until after Brexit.
There appears to be little appetite so far among the younger generation of Conservative MPs for a role that would inevitably involve heavy sacrifices and compromises as Brexit negotiations continue.
Those talks are currently deadlocked and there appears to be little chance that EU leaders will agree to the next stage of talks on future Britain-EU trade ties at a summit meeting on October 19-20.
EU officials say Britain has so far not made sufficient progress on the preliminary negotiations centring on the divorce bill, despite May's push for a breakthrough in negotiations.
Thwarted in Brussels, May had hoped to revive her fortunes at last week's party conference.
But her keynote speech was disrupted by a serial prankster who handed her an end of employment form, and she then suffered a series of coughing fits which made her combative message barely audible.
The sense of chaos was only enhanced when the letters of the slogan "Building a Country that Works for Everyone" started falling off the board behind her.
"The sense that this cannot go on may now overwhelm her," wrote Times columnist Philip Collins, one of a growing number of commentators saying that the leadership crisis has finally come to a head.
'She could be finished'
Iain Begg, a politics professor at the London School of Economics, said he expected "frantic efforts over the weekend to shore up May's position".
"There will be threats. All the dark arts of politics will be used to try to stop it," he said, referring to a possible plot to oust May.
He said the current climate had "an echo" of the demise of Thatcher in 1990 at the hands of Conservative plotters.
That ouster was in turn followed by recriminations over Europe in the 1990s under John Major that eventually led to Labour's Tony Blair taking office in 1997.
"If the wind goes against Theresa May she could be finished by as early as next week," Begg said, adding: "But if the cabinet is behind her, she will survive." Pro-Brexit MPs do not want another leadership election to slow down the process, and there are fears the lack of party unity could hand power to opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The Evening Standard, which is edited by former finance minister and bitter May critic George Osborne, predicted "a bloody series of attempted coups, protestations of loyalty and bitter recriminations that ultimately leads to her exit".
It said the only way May could regain some control over her party would be "by setting the timetable for her own departure".