Now that Theresa May has bowed to the inevitable we have what the Americans call a lame duck leader. She will step down on June 7th and the campaign to elect her successor will formally begin. Tory leadership contests are notoriously difficult to predict this far ahead but at least we can reflect on the May legacy. What should we to make of her term in office?
Mrs May’s fall is the direct consequence of her failure to deliver a Brexit deal around which her party (or at least enough of it) could unite. Endless attempts to find a way through over the last three years culminated in one final effort. She hoped she might attract enough support on the Labour backbenches to offset the inevitable opposition on her own. Kenneth Clarke, the former Tory cabinet minister and longest-serving MP, believes it might have worked. But the ferocity of opposition on the Tory benches developed a momentum that killed it before it was truly born. The new Brexit Withdrawal Agreement Bill, for which Mrs May was still professing to hold out some hope, was finally pulled only a day before her resignation speech. Its provisions for a vote in parliament on whether to conduct a second referendum, and for a continuing customs union with the EU, were too much for hard-line Tory Brexiteers to stomach. Their response, in the words of Mr Clarke, was to ‘assassinate’ her.
The final ultimatum was handed her on Friday morning by Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers. Although the form was no doubt courteous and the actual specifics kept private, it’s widely believed that he faced her with the choice: either she should announce her own departure herself, or Tory MPs would rip up their own rules to allow a new vote of confidence in her to take place, a vote she stood no chance of winning.
She will remain as leader during President Trump’s state visit and the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings and stay in Number Ten until a new leader has emerged. The hope is that this can all be done by the end of July but with as many as seventeen contestants ready to run for the top job, this timetable could prove optimistic.
How will her premiership be judged? It will certainly be one of the shortest, at barely three years, though she will probably be relieved (if such things matter) at inching ahead of Gordon Brown in the number of days she will have held office. But it is the substance of achievement rather than the longevity of tenure that is the true measure of success and by her own yardsticks, Mrs May will regard her period in office as a failure.
She came to office in July 2016 with two purposes. The most pressing was to deal with the unexpected result of the referendum in 2016. Her predecessor, David Cameron, resigned within hours of the vote being declared She came to office, having been an unenthusiastic Remainer during the campaign but determined, as she put it, to ‘deliver Brexit’ and to ensure that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. But she also came with another agenda. In perhaps the most eloquently-written statement spoken by a newly-appointed prime minister on the steps of Downing Street on the first day of office, she talked of her determination to tackle the ‘burning injustices’ that disfigure the country and make many people’s lives a misery.
With hindsight her biggest mistake, and the reason she failed on both missions, was her decision the following year to call an election in the hope of turning a Conservative majority in the House of Commons of under twenty into one very much larger, giving her freer rein to achieve both goals. She increased her party’s share of the vote but lost her majority entirely, leaving her the prisoner of her own rebels.
Her supporters say it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that this was a mistake. She took the decision to go to the country when her party’s lead in the opinion polls was substantial and when the Conservative Party had just won a by-election in a previously pretty safe Labour seat in the north of England. She had a perfectly reasonable expectation of gaining the parliamentary strength she sought, of maybe staying prime minister for ten years and of achieving both her ends. It was only during the campaign that it emerged what a hopeless campaigner she was.
Since the humiliation of the 2017 election, an election that kept her as prime minister but deprived her of the means of executing the office, it has been a sorry story, as even her greatest admirers concede. She had, in effect, to ditch her plans to tackle the burning injustices in order to concentrate her limited resources on delivering Brexit. And her failure to do the latter means she will leave office without achieving either of her aims.
But opinion differs on whether she herself is largely responsible for this failure, or whether it was the circumstances in which she found herself that finally defeated her. Her supporters would argue the latter. They would say that, at least until continued failure forced her into trying to lure the Labour opposition into agreeing a joint approach to Brexit that would win the approval of parliament, she knew perfectly well that oppositions don’t help governments out of fixes, and that she would achieve Brexit only by persuading her own party (and their allies in the Democratic Unionist Party) to back any deal she made with the EU. And, they would add, she did indeed succeed in striking a deal with the EU that many commentators argued was about as good as any British government could expect to secure.
Furthermore, it won the acquiescence of almost all the former Remain supporters in her party. Her problem was the continuing intransigence of hard-line Tory Brexiteers, represented in the backbench European Research Group, a group many regard as a party within a party. Although some of its leaders finally, and immensely reluctantly, came round to backing her deal, enough of its members refused to do so. They became known as the ‘Spartans’ for their refusal to compromise and it is they, Mrs May’s supporters contend, who are responsible for the failure of her premiership. But despite the hopelessness of her position, they add, she always kept her cool, her politeness and her courtesy: her commitment to public service cannot be questioned and her resilience was astonishing.
Up to a point, say her critics. Resilience can be rephrased as stubbornness; and a commitment to public service should not be defined by the holding of a job but by what is done with it. Sure, they say, her predicament was extremely difficult, but a good leader is one who is resourceful, one who is imaginative, one who can make bricks without straw by schmoozing, persuading, cajoling – in short being a politician. And on this measure she was useless, they say. She had a tin ear. She claimed always to be listening but never really did. She called on others to compromise but never did herself, or left it far too late, sticking by her ‘red lines’ as though they were Holy Writ. And the result was three wasted years during which the ‘burning injustices’ have got hotter; Britain is still a member of the EU, having to take part in its parliamentary elections; and public respect for politicians has all but evaporated leaving a nasty and alarming political climate of abuse and even violence. That is her legacy, they say.
These, though, are the assessments of Theresa May’s premiership by each side still sore from the bruising realities of the last three years. What is history’s verdict likely to be?
Much will depend on what her successor achieves, or fails to achieve. Optimists hope that a new broom will sweep clean, that having a new leader will alter the whole climate and make possible what now seems impossible. It will be different.
But sceptics say that that is exactly what it won’t be. The new prime minister will face exactly the same predicament that has felled Mrs May. There will still be no deal on Brexit available that could persuade all Tory MPs to vote for it. There will be no cross-party agreement on offer that would not result in a new Tory prime minister being denounced by their own side for negotiating it. No Tories believe a general election, under however charismatic a new leader, would produce a secure Conservative majority but would instead risk making Jeremy Corbyn prime minister or, more likely, producing yet another parliament in which no party had a majority and the current drift would continue indefinitely.
If that were to be the outcome, history might look back on Theresa May’s premiership with more charity. It might say that the deal she negotiated was the best that Britain was ever going to achieve and parliament’s failure to back it was the cause of the chaos and decline that ensued. Theresa May nobly fought to prevent this but was overwhelmed by irrational forces she could not control.
Or, if things go differently and better under a new leader, history will come to a very different conclusion: that Mrs May’s time in office was no more than three wasted years.
What’s your view? Are you glad or sad that she is going? Do you think there is more to be said in favour of her premiership than against it, or vice versa? And what do you think will be history’s verdict?
Let us know.