The legacy of Theresa May


’s premiership is somewhat of a sad story. A story of a woman who was forced to take over a mess that was not hers but who made it infinitely messier, a woman who tried to unite the country but who ultimately further polarised an already divided nation. Her legacy unavoidably, and perhaps unfairly, will be primarily one of failure.

took over as Prime Minister in July 2016, a month after the UK voted to leave the European Union by a margin of 3.8 percent. As David Cameron (and, might I add, Brexiters like Boris Johnson) quickly vanished off the face of the earth, it fell to May to muddle through the mess that Brexit was to become. It seems somewhat unfair to characterise May’s premiership solely by her failure to deliver Brexit, an insurmountably difficult task hardly anyone could have handled better. Nonetheless, even looking beyond Brexit, May’s legacy presents a sorry state.

Failure to be liked cemented her fall from favour both politically and publicly

            What comes to mind when thinking back to May’s premiership is not only Brexit but her unsuccessful attempts to improve her public image. There is the infamous interview in which she admitted that the ‘naughtiest’ thing she has ever done was ‘running through fields of wheat’, or videos of her awkwardly and stiffly dancing on the Tory Party Conference stage in 2018. These attempts largely failed, making her the mockery of the country. Throughout her time as PM, May never did manage to shake off her image as the rigid, unapproachable Ice Queen. Even when this façade temporarily broke during her resignation speech as PM where May was unable to hide her emotions, it was already too late. This failure to be liked and viewed as approachable and charismatic cemented her fall from favour both politically and publicly when she failed to deliver Brexit.

Brexit, of course, was a catastrophe. While it would have been difficult for anyone, May did not make Brexit any easier, making many mistakes along the way. Her first blunder came when she treated the EU referendum as the definitive decision of the British people on the matter, followed soon after by the mistake to call a snap election, resulting in further reducing the percentage of Tory MP’s in Parliament, therefore destroying the likelihood of passing any sort of deal. From then, mistakes came in quick succession. Calling Article 52 into effect and setting a deadline for leaving the EU without first consulting with MP’s about the kind of deal to be struck made it difficult for her to reach over the Leave/Remain divide building up in Parliament. Lastly, May’s lack of persuasive qualities and her rigidity made selling the deal to Parliament even harder. May’s legacy will therefore in the end always be characterised by her failure to push through Brexit and the divisions resulting from it. 

May tried to be a transformative PM but her deeds failed to match her aspirations

Sadly, May’s legacy on domestic issues does not fare much better. While in her first speech as PM she claimed she wanted to rectify the country’s “burning injustices,” she never actually got around to doing it. Trying to keep her promise to reduce net migration she created a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants leading to the Windrush Scandal and in the end still failing to reduce actual net migration. Moreover, a cut in police spending and falling officer numbers has coincided with a sharp increase in knife crime. By moderating, but not abandoning, austerity measures most government departments continued to endure real-term spending cuts. Furthermore, despite promising to improve the dysfunctional housing market, May failed to substantially increase house-building. Only 165,090 homes were completed in 2018, a number far below the 250,000 required to meet demand. May tried to be a transformative PM, to go beyond divisions and inequality, but her deeds failed to match her aspirations.

Nonetheless, May’s premiership was historically significant as the second female PM of the UK who throughout her political career did much to try and improve gender equality. In 2005 she created the Women2Win Foundation to encourage more women to become Conservative Party MP’s and managed to increase the number of female MP’s significantly: in 2005 only 17 of the Conservative MP’s were women but by 2015 this had risen to 68. During her premiership she also created important landmark legislation about human trafficking (the Modern Slavery Act) and legislation to protect domestic abuse survivors, making coercive control a crime and drawing attention to economic abuse (the Domestic Abuse Bill).

May’s legacy, in the end, will be characterised by failure

Neither should her last-minute announcements and policies be disregarded entirely. In a bid to improve her legacy May pushed through a number of policies during her last weeks in office. In an effort to tackle the growing mental health crisis she unveiled plans to train teachers to spot early signs of mental health issues. She also revealed plans to transform parental leave and announced last minute above-inflation pay rise for public sector workers. Lastly, she set a legally binding target for Britain to cut net carbon emission to zero by 2050. However, such last minute laws, while made in good faith, are not sustainable. Parliament usually does not enter into these sorts of commitments without going through a formal process, weighing up competing demands from different departments. As none of these policies were properly discussed, they rest on weak foundations and risk quickly being dismantled by the new government.

May’s legacy in the end will overwhelmingly be characterised by failure. Her downfall is arguably not all her doing as facing the challenges of Brexit resulted in a record level turn-over of ministers and made running the government difficult. Furthermore, while political divisions continued to deepen during her premiership, this cannot solely be blamed on May – one could also point to the unwillingness of Parliament to help May find a compromise. 

In the end, ’s legacy will only fully be decided once it becomes clear what Boris Johnson will make of the mess handed to him. Who knows, maybe after a year of Boris we would all wish to have back.

Photograph by Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916 via Flickr.

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