As she steps down as leader of the Conservative Party and sets in motion the process to select a new prime minister, it is timely to look at Theresa May’s legacy. Does she really have one? Sadly, the answer must be no. Her most ardent supporters insist that she has many fine qualities, among them the ability to get things done.
The facts do not bear this out. Shortly after she became prime minister, she insisted that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, a slogan that became a mantra to dispel doubts that she could deliver on the 2016 referendum result. It was within her gift to deliver Brexit but not within her ability. She failed. Her friends regard her as a principled and upstanding democrat.
Maybe so on a personal level but in politics, not so much. In order to keep her party in power following the disastrous general election of 2017 when the Conservatives lost their majority in the House of Commons, she showed herself willing to buy the support of the DUP while ignoring the wishes of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland.
She is said to be resolute and steadfast. Yet in her Brexit negotiations what she showed was that she could be obstinate and stubborn. “No deal is better than a bad deal” became another mantra of Mrs May’s but when even her closest supporters showed their opposition to what they saw as a bad deal, she carried on regardless.
Mrs May won praise for her courage, determination, and ability to survive a three-year political crisis since the UK’s vote to leave the EU. Fair enough, if surviving means drinking from the poisoned chalice bequeathed to her by David Cameron and then limping along while suffering blow after blow from friends and foe alike.
Her clumsy negotiating tactics showed from early on, whether it was dealing with Brussels or attempting to persuade her fellow MPs to accept an agreement she had signed up to. Her handling of the Brexit endgame, refusing to accept MPs’ opposition before belatedly opening ultimately futile negotiations with Jeremy Corbyn, left her politically adrift.
Mrs May’s domestic political nous is also suspect. During the 2017 General Election campaign the Conservative lead over Labour halved over the so-called ‘dementia tax’ proposal in the Tory manifesto. Older votes left in their droves.
Likewise, her failure to meet survivors and locals in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy in London made her appear disinterested and uncaring and robbed her and her party of a lot of popular support. She has also shown herself to be delusional. During the 2016 leadership race, Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor, referred to her as a “bloody difficult woman”. Mrs May took ownership of the phrase, mimicking Margaret Thatcher’s delight at her moniker, the Iron Lady.
In her resignation speech, Mrs May again raised the ghost of Mrs Thatcher when she described herself as “not the last” female PM. To paraphrase the remark made by US Democratic vice-presidential candidate senator Lloyd Bentsen to Republican vice-presidential candidate senator Dan Quayle, Theresa May is no Maggie Thatcher.