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May promises to be 'bloody difficult woman' in Brexit talks

LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Theresa May promised EU officials on Tuesday that she would be “a bloody difficult woman” in divorce talks, after being criticised for underestimating the complexity of Brexit talks and having “illusions” over a deal.

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Campaigning in the early election she has called for next month, May warned voters that the 27 other EU countries were determined to win a divorce deal that “works for them”, saying Britain must unite behind her to strengthen her hand.

“These negotiations will not be easy,” she told supporters in the eastern part of the city of Bristol, where voters elected a Labour lawmaker in the last election in 2015.

“There are 27 European member states united in their determination to get the deal that works for them. We must show the same unity of purpose here at home to ensure that we get a deal that works in our national interests, too.”

After meeting May at her Downing Street residence last Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was reported to have said he was “10 times more sceptical than I was before” about the possibility of sealing a deal.

May has dismissed the report as “Brussels gossip” and, in an interview with the BBC, suggested she would not be a pushover.

“During the Conservative Party leadership campaign I was described by one of my colleagues as a ‘bloody difficult woman’. And I said at the time the next person to find that out will be Jean-Claude Juncker,” she said.

The prime minister is confident she can make a success of Brexit, her spokesman told reporters, and was approaching the talks “in a constructive manner and with huge amounts of goodwill”.

Addressing questions about May’s capacity to conduct the time-consuming negotiations, he added: “The prime minister is leading the Brexit talks. She will be assisted by the secretary of state for exiting the European Union and senior officials.”

The prime minister, appointed shortly after Britain voted to leave the EU last year, has stuck to her policy of revealing little about her negotiating hand before the talks start - most likely after the election.

She has been accused by opposition lawmakers of taking a high-handed approach towards the rest of the EU in the run-up to the talks, potentially poisoning the atmosphere as battle lines are drawn.

May’s political legacy rides on the success or failure of the talks. But the EU cannot afford to cut Britain too generous a deal for fear that Brexit could encourage other members to leave.

With her party still commanding a large lead in the polls despite some gains by the main opposition Labour Party, May again warned voters that any vote for other parties would lead to a “coalition of chaos” that could hurt the EU talks.

“They stand ready to prop up (Labour leader) Jeremy Corbyn’s coalition of chaos, to see the Brexit process stall and to reopen the old battles of the past,” she said, attacking the opposition Liberal Democrats that could benefit in the election after promising a second referendum on any Brexit deal.

“That is why this election is so important. We need to secure the leadership the country needs. Leadership, stability, doing the right thing for Britain.”

Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Hugh Lawson