On 24th May after just short of three years in office, Theresa May announced her resignation as Prime Minister. As of today she will no longer be Conservative Party leader and a leadership contest will formally begin on Monday to replace her. Outgoing Editor in Chief Thomas Sherlock reflects on May’s tenure and her legacy.
It’s the end for Theresa May’s premiership, and the moment has been prepared for.
Since the resignations following Chequers meeting last year, the Conservative Party has been at war with itself. This political civil war has seen a second wave of resignations in November, a failed vote of no confidence in Theresa May in December, three rebellions against the Withdrawal Agreement and defections to the Independent Group. All presided over by an increasingly under siege Prime Minister. Her political demise has been a long time coming.
What of her legacy then? Her era as Prime Minister saw her call a snap election with a calamatous campaign resulting in a broken parliamentary majority, her party split by Europe arguably more than ever and parliamentary theatre on a grand scale as she fought, in vain, to pass her Brexit deal. Outside of Parliament, her era saw terror attacks in Manchester and London Bridge, the Grenfell Tower disaster, the Windrush Scandal and in April an alleged leak from the National Security Council leading to the sacking of the Defence Secretary. It has been far from an easy ride for May and amidst these crises and scandals, her domestic agenda was buried.
When she first took to the podium outside Number 10 in 2016, May outlined her desire to tackle seven ‘burning injustices’. A BBC article reviewed those injustices, and found that for the most part they show little sign of improvement. May’s domestic plans were completley truncated by the loss of the Tories’ majority in 2017. The proposals in that manifesto were highly controversial; the furore around the ‘dementia tax’ led to her infamous “nothing has changed” outburst. What little reforms she did manage to introduce have also been met with controversy. The roll-out of Universal Credit (begun under Cameron and continued under her) in particular has met fierce criticism, with even some Conservative MPs calling for it to be paused in light of reports of its impact. In her resignation speech May cited some of the initiatives she’s launched, specifically the race disparity audit and gender pay reporting, but those do little outside of provide statistics for existing problems, rather than solve them. Another initiative which she didn’t mention was the review of higher education funding, but that has yet to alter anything significantly either. She also spoke of increased mental health funding and ending the postcode lottery for domestic abuse responses, however the impact of those remains more an amibition than a concrete achievement. Theresa May wanted to build a better Britain, and perhaps a hope of still achieving that was what kept her going this long.
At the end of the day, it all comes back to Brexit. May’s legacy will ultimately be the Prime Minister who attempted to seize control of Brexit and failed. Despite all her efforts, negotiations and rhetoric (“Brexit Means Brexit”), it was just not enough. She becomes another Tory leader to fall on the issue of Europe. Her statement on the value of compromise in her resignation speech could be seen as a dig at her own party, which seems to have forgotten it. Theresa May’s legacy is, unavoidably, one of failure.
It’s fitting that my last contribution to the Despatch Box will be this epitah for Theresa May’s premiership. Her premiership was still in early days when I began my undergraduate studies and her actions have undeniably shaped the course of British politics since. Ultimately my main perception of Theresa May is of someone who was dealt a difficult hand, had a seemingly assured decision backfire and has spent the years since under collosal pressure against ever more difficult odds. Her tears should serve as a reminder both that politicians are human and of the brutal game that is politics. Theresa May genuinely tried, but that was simply not enough.