Theresa May resigns: The end of an era?

By Jack Parker

has announced her resignation as Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party, following months of speculation and several attempts to oust her. In a speech at Downing Street on Friday morning, Ms May announced that she would step down on the 7th June. This decision occurred almost exactly two years after the disastrous snap election which she called to strengthen her majority in parliament and subsequently her control of the Brexit process.

She said: ‘I feel as certain today as I did three years ago that in a democracy, if you give people a choice you have a duty to implement what they decide. I have done my best to do that.’ Her announcement came at the end of a week in which she announced a repackaged version of her Brexit deal. This new deal floated the idea of offering a second referendum to tempt Labour MPs to vote for it. However, this repackaging failed to win over Labour, infuriated Brexiteers, and shredded the last remaining tethers of support she had from her Cabinet. The subsequent resignation of the Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom, who was one of the most vocal supporters of Brexit in the 2016 referendum, was the fatal blow to Ms May’s time as Prime Minister.

Ms May used her statement as a justification not only for her own Brexit strategy, but also for the work her government has undertaken aside from Brexit. In particular she emphasised her response to the Grenfell disaster, eliminating the deficit, protecting jobs, and climate change. Although she will have officially resigned on the 7th June, Ms May will remain in Downing Street as a caretaker Prime Minister until a new Tory leader has been elected.

Reaction poured in from around the world over the course of the day, both in support and in strong criticism of Ms May. Jeremy Hunt, who served as Ms May’s second Foreign Secretary and announced his candidacy for the leadership shortly after her statement, called her a ‘true public servant,’ whilst Donald Trump later paid tribute saying: ‘I feel badly for Theresa, I like her very much. She worked very hard, she’s very strong.’ Brexiteer Steve Baker, among the Prime Minister’s leading critics within her own party, called her statement ‘very dignified’ and admitting it was a ‘sad but necessary day.’ Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, tweeted that Ms May was ‘right to resign,’ saying she’s accepted that ‘she can’t govern, and nor can her divided and disintegrating party.’ Mr Corbyn has already called for an immediate general election.

Ms May became visibly emotional as she concluded her speech, her voice breaking as she said she would be leaving ‘the job that it has been the honour of my life to hold. […] I do so with no ill-will, but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.’ It was a rare display of emotion from a woman who has often been dubbed the ‘Maybot’ by the media.

her three years in office have been almost entirely defined by Brexit, and by her inability to pull it off

Few can doubt that Ms May has a genuine love for her country, and that she has worked in the national interest (or her vision of it at least) throughout her time as Prime Minister. But few will also deny that her unflinching commitment to both country and national interest, as well as desire to appease the myriad of perspectives on Brexit in the Commons, has blinded her judgment on numerous occasions, and has led her to make decisions that have proved detrimental to her premiership.

Despite her ill-fated decision to call the snap election in which she lost her parliamentary majority instead of building it up, it was the deal she negotiated with the EU which marked the beginning of the end of Theresa May. Her deal was unpopular from the beginning, resulting in the biggest loss in a parliamentary vote for a sitting government in British history. Regardless Ms May’s insistence to pursue her deal led her to bring it back to the Commons twice more, only to be answered with another two sizable losses. By the time of her inconclusive talks with the Labour Party, and her Brexit deal had evidently become inseparable.

As her deal became increasingly viewed as detrimental to the Union and toxic to the national interest, she became ever more politically toxic as well. For her critics, her commitment to the national interest and her refusal to resign until she was very nearly forced from office therefore posed an ironic contradiction.

Ms May’s legacy will very much depend on how people choose to view it. The history books will either write of as the Prime Minister who tried to compromise, but was brought down by the refusal of her colleagues to budge from their idealised version of Brexit, or as the leader whose catalogue of errors meant she (and she alone) sowed the seeds of her own downfall. Either way, her three years in office have been almost entirely defined by Brexit, and by her inability to pull it off.

May’s time in Downing Street has come to an end, and after all the trials and tribulations that Brexit has thrown at her and her government, it would appear that the Conservative Party remains relatively whole, even if her premiership isn’t.

What will follow now is the complex process of choosing a new Conservative leader and Prime Minister. Tory party chairs have expressed their commitment to electing a new leader by the end of July, with the current favourites being Brexiteers Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, and Michael Gove. Conservative leadership election rules state that Tory MPs will hold a series of votes to whittle down the leadership candidates to a final two. The wider Conservative Party membership, currently comprised of around 125,000 people, will have the final choice between these two contenders.

Whether they are a Remainer or a Brexiteer, whoever inherits the keys to No.10 faces the same conundrum that broke Ms May; do they push through with her unpopular deal, or do they scrap it and take us back to square one, adding years of Brexit uncertainty? One chapter in British political history is coming to an end, but as it stands, it doesn’t look like the next will read much differently.

Image by Raymond Wang via Creative Commons

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