Image Credit: Arno Mikkor/Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC. Edited by Callum Tennant
Theresa May is the Prime Minister that few predicted. In the aftermath of a surprise Brexit victory in the 2016 EU Referendum, few thought that a remainer, albeit a reluctant remainer, would become the UK’s next Prime Minister. And what a fast paced, political rollercoaster the last three tumultuous years under May have been.
In her first speech outside Number 10 May pledged to fight the “burning injustices” within Britain, in a speech that will be remembered as one of her best. Her premiership has, in reality, been dominated by Brexit, leaving precious little time for other national issues. Despite this one of her last acts as Prime Minister was to give public sector workers a backdated wage increase, resonating with this first speech. A few months later it was onto rolling out the government's Brexit policy and negotiation strategy with, what would become a famous phrase, “no deal is better than a bad deal.” That was what Theresa May told EU leaders in Brussels in January 2017.
Riding high in the polls Theresa May backtracked on a promise of not holding a general election, when she declared a snap election for the 8th of June 2017, stating that she had changed her mind while on a walking holiday in Wales. This historic election would ultimately end in disaster for May, forever wounding her premiership and setting the tone and playing field for Parliament and Downing Street. May has been criticised for developing the 2017 general election manifesto within too small a circle, with particular anger and blame being placed on her advisors, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill who were later fired.
Straight from the get-go there was an awkward feel to the campaign, which heavily focused on Theresa May personally, almost in a presidential style campaign. Indeed you’d have had to look at the Conservative battle bus closely to even see the word Conservative. A series of campaign incidents increasingly made this look like a serious mistake, whether is was the famous interview where Theresa May said the naughtiest thing she’d ever done was “run through fields of wheat,” or the robotic delivery style of her campaign and the now well-established line; “strong and stable leadership in the national interest”. A U-turn over the so called “Dementia tax” before the manifesto had even been formally announced, followed by the declaration that “nothing has changed” was the largest blunder of the campaign. The London Bridge Terror attacks on the 3rd of June also focused public debate and attention on police cuts, the cuts over which May had presided while in the role of Home Secretary. All of this made the perfect storm for disaster, in the end May lost the Conservatives their majority losing thirteen seats.
In a resilient manner, which would come to define May, she refused pressure to resign and went on to sign a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP, in exchange for Northern Ireland getting £1 billion. May spent the majority of her remaining premiership negotiating the UK’s withdrawal deal from the EU. In December 2018 she survived a crucial confidence vote by Tory MPs, which was triggered by Brexiteer MPs who believed her deal was a betrayal of Brexit. She won by 200 votes to their 117. However, this victory would not last long and the fact that a third of her own MPs did not back her was quite damaging. Perhaps the time when May seemed most Prime Ministerial was when she responded to the Salisbury poisoning of former double agent Mr Skripal on British soil. Leading a coordinated international response May blamed and condemned Russia for its actions, this culminated in the record expulsion of 153 Russian diplomats by over 28 countries. The relationship between Theresa May and President Putin has remained frosty ever since.
The low point for Theresa May came when she first put her withdrawal deal to Parliament. It suffered a defeat of 230 votes, the largest defeat a vote has ever suffered in the House of Commons. Despite this May won a vote of no confidence in her shortly after this historic defeat. With changes to the non-binding political declaration, May tried a further two times to get her deal through Parliament, both of which received a resounding rejection. Hindered by a small group of her own Conservative MPs belonging to the European Research Group, and caught between pro-remain Tory MPs like Anna Soubry, May reached out to Corbyn. This caused outrage within the Conservative Party and talks between Labour and the Conservatives eventually broke down with no agreement reached. The Brexit date has now been extended from the 29th March until the 31st of October, when Boris Johnson will be the UK’s next Prime Minister.
In the end, Theresa May will likely be remembered as the Prime Minister who vowed to deliver Brexit and then failed to come through on her promise. She has been a Prime Minister who was placed into an incredibly difficult situation, but multiple blunders and the loss of a majority made that uncomfortable situation untenable. There is however widespread respect for Mrs May’s resilience and her attitude towards public service, and while maybe not respect, the UK will certainly remember her for her infamous dance moves.
Image: May spent a large amount of her time dealing with Brexit and negotiating with the EU 27 (Number 10)