In Depth

How will Theresa May be remembered in years to come?

History may be a fraction kinder than today’s commentators but the PM still leaves behind a polarised nation

Theresa May is heading into her final Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons before Boris Johnson takes up residence in Downing Street later today.

She will meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace to officially resign and, “if she's lucky, she will be given a personal gift”, says the BBC, noting that Gordon Brown received a signed photograph.

The former Labour PM has described the transition out of office as “pretty dramatic”.

“In Britain, when you go, you not only lose the title, but you lose the house overnight and any ability to present yourself as something,” he said.

In terms of May’s legacy, this was a prime minister who “began in office nearly three years ago with two missions – to tackle the ‘burning injustices’ that blight our society and to deliver Brexit”, says Sky News’s Beth Rigby. “Worthy goals, but the past two years have been characterised as a battle for May’s survival rather than a stage for social change.”

One Brexiteer MP told Rigby: “Who is the worst prime minister? It’s either her or Lord North who lost the colonies. But actually she is the worst because she lost her own country.”

So is that how she will be remembered?

A burning injustice?

On her arrival at No. 10, May vowed to enact domestic legislation that would see Britain’s economy and society renewed, and its “burning injustices” rectified.

As she departs, in terms of her achievements, May would point to “forcing companies with more than 250 employees to reveal the average pay of men and women, increasing the NHS budget by £20.5bn a year by 2023 – a real-terms average increase of 3.4% a year – and a 25-year environment plan that will see the sale of diesel cars and petrol cars phased out by 2040”, says the BBC.

But, despite pledges, “she has failed to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands she promised and a much-delayed social care green paper has still not been published”, adds the broadcaster.

Overall her domestic legacy is “thin gruel”, says The Sun. The economy is “doing fine, the job market booming. But she did next to nothing for the ‘just about managings’”, the paper says.

The Daily Mirror goes further saying May came to office with “noble intentions”, but “the words were never matched by deeds”.

“She bequeaths a dismal domestic legacy of more than four million children in poverty, a record number of people using foodbanks and crumbling public services,” the paper says.

May spoke often of her desire to dramatically increase housebuilding. But her rhetoric “failed to match reality”, says the New Statesman. Last year, just 165,090 homes were completed, a 1% increase on the previous year. The spectre of Grenfell also looms large as May promised to rehouse all residents within three weeks, “Seventeen families remain in hotels or temporary accommodation”, says the magazine.

Yet, “unencumbered by the responsibility of taking the UK out of the EU, May has spent the final weeks of her time in office rolling out a series of announcements in areas which have been largely ignored during her time behind that famous black door”, says Politico.

This has included committing the UK to cutting carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050; announcing a new Office for Tackling Injustices and watchdog for domestic abuse victims; and pledging millions to tackle Aids, malaria and tuberculosis. Investment was also announced for tackling modern slavery and poor mental health.

An unshakeable sense of duty

Some commentators believe her downfall was not all her own doing. The turmoil over Brexit caused May to lose many key ministers in a short period of time. In fact, she has seen more resignations than Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher saw in ten years – a level of ministerial turnover that has been described as “unprecedented” by the Institute for Government.

May made mistakes of her own, but she always acted in good faith, “which is more than can be said for most of the vipers around her”, says the Daily Mail. Indeed The Sun adds it would be “ungenerous not to remember too her unshakeable dedication to her country and remarkable perseverance against what became insurmountable odds”.

But she was a prime minister “whose commitment, duty and determination crashed up against an almost unprecedented evaporation of authority, power and influence after a series of catastrophic miscalculations”, writes Politico’s Tom McTague and Charlie Cooper.

Will Tanner, who advised the prime minister for five years until 2017, told the pair: “She has tried always to bring politics back to that mainstream middle-ground of public opinion. The difficulty is that she herself has not been able to be the leader, the prophet for the mainstream middle-ground vision. Partly that has left a vacuum for other people to fill.”

Former Brexit Secretary David Davis added: “I don’t think her worst enemies would accuse of her of not having a sense of duty. But she interpreted it in a way that was bound to fail.”

A disunited kingdom

Historians may be “a fraction kinder to May than today’s commentators”, says The Economist.

Indeed May “never had the numbers to pass a Brexit deal through parliament, either before her snap election or after it”, says Sky News’s Beth Rigby. “If Brexit was a riddle, the obduracy of some of her own MPs made it an impossible conundrum for her to resolve”, she writes.

It’s true that “few politicians envied May as they watched her grappling with Brexit”, says the Financial Times. The prime minister made the challenge “incomparably more difficult at the outset by failing to consult widely over what kind of deal could realistically be struck with the EU and win approval in the House of Commons”, the paper adds.

She used her resignation speech in May to insist she had left nothing on the pitch. The truth, her critics countered, is that this is not the case. Rather, May went as far as she possibly could without breaking the Conservative Party.

“She ignored certain strategic options because she wanted to keep the party together,” one leading Tory MP told Politico. “But the party still imploded. It’s just total, total failure.”

May’s most consequential feat may yet be that when she became prime minister, “an overwhelming majority of people thought we should have a negotiated Brexit”, says the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush.

Now she leaves with a country in which “many Leavers now believe that a perfect, costless version of Brexit exists, which they are being denied only through some mix of incompetence and conspiracy”, says The Economist. At the same time “many Remainers, seeing the government constantly in retreat, believe that Brexit could yet be cancelled altogether”, the magazine adds.

“This polarisation is May’s legacy,” it concludes.


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