Theresa May’s Only Legacy Is Failure

May leaves a country on its knees, staring down the barrel of a uniquely ruinous no-deal Brexit while the rest of the world looks on in either sympathetic horror or cathartic mockery, Jonathan Lis writes.
Press Association

Anyone who watched the standing ovation given to Theresa May in parliament today could be forgiven for thinking they had lived through an entirely different three years. The MPs who fell over themselves to congratulate the departing prime minister paid her far more respect than she ever showed them. Some went as far as to pay tribute to her legacy.

Perhaps, under the circumstances, they might have considered that it was more important to tell the truth than to be polite. May leaves a country on its knees, staring down the barrel of a uniquely ruinous no-deal Brexit while the rest of the world looks on in either sympathetic horror or cathartic mockery. May has overseen an assault on our democratic institutions, which seems to know no limit: the judiciary, civil service and, above all, parliament have been targeted by a Brexit-supporting elite which doesn’t care how much it destroys, and the outgoing prime minister has either enabled it or remained silent.

May’s attack on parliamentary democracy happened early and often. She refused to contemplate the possibility that parliament might get to choose when Article 50 would be triggered, and had to be dragged through the courts twice – losing on both occasions. She initially refused even to allow MPs a meaningful say on Brexit, and only conceded that right after a significant Tory rebellion. She showed so little regard for parliamentary sovereignty that she led the first modern government ever to be held in contempt of it. Of course she didn’t stop there. May attempted to sell her deal through a combination of naked lies and incessant blackmail. She continually insisted that the backstop did not amount to an indefinite customs union, though it did, and that we would retain full control of our trade policy, though we wouldn’t. She then threatened MPs that if they rejected her wildly damaging deal they would either bring about no-deal or no Brexit, depending on which outcome they feared more. When they voted against that deal, she refused to accept an ounce of responsibility and instead went on prime-time television to denounce both the Opposition and her own backbenchers. Of course, she could not accept defeat, and demanded parliament vote on the doomed package again and again.

Her attacks on parliament may have bolstered the independence of MPs, but at significant cost to the institution of parliament. At the start of May’s tenure, the idea of proroguing parliament to force through any policy (let alone one with such grave economic consequences as no-deal) would have been literally inconceivable. At the end of her premiership it is freely and publicly contemplated by her successor. As with no-deal, with even the government warning of food shortages and economic chaos, May’s rule made the unthinkable likely or even probable.

May treated parliament with such disdain because at the heart of her premiership was the purest hubris. Like a Tudor queen or presidential dictator, May believed that only she knew the answers and as such only she should have the right to propose them. Brexit became such an act of solipsism that even the Cabinet had no idea what she intended to do from one week to the next. She dismissed the advice of senior officials and EU experts and insisted that Brexit would be determined by what she herself deemed valuable. May had never shown an interest in the economy before she became prime minister, and it became immediately apparent that she would happily sacrifice British people’s jobs if it meant stopping non-British people’s immigration.

The issue of migration is central to May’s legacy. It is no accident that the Windrush scandal happened under her watch. As had been seen in the grammar-schools proposal, May rooted policy in the imagined utopia of her childhood. Modern Britain would have to return to a misremembered 1950s Home Counties, steeped in both class privilege and whiteness. As home secretary she had pioneered the “hostile environment”, which caused so much misery to so many, and, as prime minister, insisted on treating immigrants not as potential future British citizens but as invaders and criminals-in-waiting. She refused to reduce the immigration target of 100,000, despite its patent absurdity, and for months did not even have the humanity to guarantee the millions of EU citizens in Britain that she would not deport them. Her scripted remark that EU migrants had “jumped the queue” exposed her attitude. The fact she only took Windrush seriously when it coincided with the Commonwealth summit and caused her political embarrassment illustrated how little she cared. Characteristically, it was the Home Secretary Amber Rudd who carried the can, not the Home Secretary Theresa May who had caused the disaster in the first place.

Everything Theresa May said when she became prime minister was hollow. Her promise to alleviate social injustice came to nothing as her government continued the unending heartlessness of austerity, while food-bank use soared and head teachers around the country reported that their children were coming to school underfed. And her promise to deliver Brexit and ‘take back control of our money, borders and laws’ collapsed upon its first contact with reality. In both cases, May simply doubled down, hoped the problems would go away, and refused to take any of the blame. Applauding her for her commitment to public service is a grim joke. May’s only legacy is failure, and it is all she will be remembered for.

Jonathan Lis is deputy director of the pro-EU think tank British Influence.