[Obit] Theresa May: the Brexit Prime Minister

When Theresa May first took to the lectern as Prime Minister in 2016, she made an impassioned pitch to the centre ground, outlining her goals of “fighting against the burning injustice[s]” of society, and creating “a country that works, not for the privileged few, but for every one of us,” as well as tackling Brexit. Her legacy says otherwise; not only has Theresa May’s premiership had disastrous effects domestically, the key issue that plagued her time in office has yet to be delivered, and her handling of it will go down as one of the most substantial failures in the history of politics.

While few leaderships have ended as miserably as May’s, with her own cabinet engineering her downfall, it was hard to avoid cringing as she tearfully proclaimed her “enormous and enduring gratitude” to have had the opportunity to serve the country she loves. It’s ironic that she didn’t show such emotion sooner, it may have saved her premiership if she had. Although I often feel for female politicians – they get a pretty rotten deal after all: never quite measuring up to the toughness of their male counterparts in the public eye, while being vilified for a lack of feeling – May’s delivery of these final lines seemingly sums up this weak and muddled premiership. To think she was handed the keys to Number 10 in the good faith of being a “safe pair of hands” – a unifier – three years ago.

A sharp spike in London’s knife crime, the rise of racial profiling in our police, more than 120,000 children on the streets as of 2019, twelve-hour waits for A&E, the legacy of the “hostile environment” policy, the disgraceful windrush scandal, the embarrassing handling of Grenfell; these are just some of the atrocities overseen by Mrs. May during her time in office. The only praiseworthy policy I know of from the last three years is the reduction of the use of disposable plastics, not exactly a significant achievement, but I’m sure it made some Green voters happy. If there’s one issue that has dogged Theresa May’s tenure as Prime Minister, however, it’s Brexit. May aimed to “make a success” of leaving the EU, while reducing any negative economic impacts and holding her party together, something she was to find tremendously difficult. Through a series of strategic failings, Theresa May would erroneously define this as the issue by which her tenure was judged.

The most significant of these failings was the conceited calling of the snap general election in spring 2017 which would, while not directly linked to Brexit, end up having a hugely consequential role in its future. An abysmally dreary campaign coupled with the historically unpopular manifesto – compared with the much more positive alternatives offered by Labour – resulted in one of the biggest modern political upsets. May had gambled her parliamentary majority and lost it, suffering a net loss of thirteen seats, compared to Labour’s gain of 30. She was forced to enter into a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party, presenting problems for Brexit in the context of the Irish backstop. Theresa May’s approval ratings plummeted across the board. From crusher to crushed, the squandering of this electoral opportunity is arguably the crowning political failure of Theresa May’s tenure. Had a Conservative majority existed in the House of Commons, Brexit might have been delivered sooner.

May’s approach to Brexit was also strategically inept. By paying attention exclusively to the 52% that voted to leave, the 48% of remain backers felt sidelined and ditched the Tories for more explicitly pro-EU parties like the Liberal Democrats. Endeavouring to form a consensus between moderate Brexiteers and practical Remainers would have been May’s most likely success given her parliamentary numbers, but instead she opted to deliver the hardest Brexit that the left of her party could stomach – the least viable option, espoused by the likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg – out of fear of a leadership challenge. By bringing her deal to parliament a total of three times she simply frustrated, and radicalised the rhetoric of, both sides of the debate.

Compromise was the intended keynote of May’s short time in office (she will have narrowly surpassed Gordon Brown by the time she officially departs in June), and while mediator is a virtuous role to take up, especially in modern Britain: polarised almost to the point of being ungovernable, May has only inflamed tensions. Whoever replaces May will face a analogous challenge in widespread hostility and resentment towards the political establishment, but without the parliamentary numbers to do anything about it. A general election would be necessary, inner-party pressure aside, but the rise of the Brexit Party coupled with a patience-spent public would ensure a Labour victory (if not a majority), sealing May’s successor’s legacy as worse amongst party members than her’s. Something’s going to give soon, and I think in the long run, Theresa May will be thankful she wasn’t in office to oversee the political cataclysm on the horizon.

In summary, I truly believe that while Theresa May’s legacy is irreparably tarnished, the ripples created by her premiership will beset politics for generations, making her one of the most consequential Prime Ministers this country has ever had.