Prime Minister Theresa May leaves after making a statement outside at 10 Downing Street in London, where she announced she is standing down as Tory party leader on Friday June 7.
PA Wire/PA Images
Prime Minister Theresa May leaves after making a statement outside at 10 Downing Street in London, where she announced she is standing down as Tory party leader on Friday June 7.
NEWS
24/05/2019 10:12 BST | Updated 07/06/2019 16:44 BST

‘An Almost Impossible Task’: Theresa May's Legacy As The ‘Brexit’ Prime Minister

Her tenure ends as it began – completely and utterly dominated by Brexit.

Theresa May’s tenure as prime minister ends as it began – completely and utterly dominated by Brexit.

Last month, May announced in an emotional speech that she would step down as leader of the Conservative Party. 

Her speech on the steps of Downing Street followed a tense 48 hours after a Cabinet coup which forced her from office amid fury over her Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

On Friday, she cemented her resignation with a letter to the Conservative 1922 Committee. 

It was a long way from the warm welcome which followed her first speech on the steps of No.10 back in June 2016.

In the wake of the Brexit vote tearing the country – and the Conservative Party – asunder, May had emerged as the unity candidate, the “grown up” politician capable of healing the divisions. 

The vicar’s daughter had been the UK’s longest serving home secretary and fiercely loyal to the outgoing Tory leader, David Cameron, and his predecessors. 

But her plan was to reach out beyond Tory heartlands as she told TV cameras she would put the “just about managing” at the heart of her administration’s mission. 

“The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few but by yours. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives,” she said, before entering Downing Street with beloved husband Phillip at her side.

With public support for Cameron’s austerity agenda draining away, May made an immediate break with the past, dispatching with chancellor George Osborne and elevating Vote Leave talisman Boris Johnson to foreign secretary. 

Debate continues to rage over which of May’s mistakes was the biggest. Was it triggering Article 50 – the two-year notice of Britain leaving the EU – before working out a strategy? 

Was it siding with Brexiteers and excluding Remainer Tories and Labour from the negotiations until the very last minute?

Most agree her decision to call an early general election – which cost the Tories their majority and left them to be propped up by the Northern Irish DUP – had the greatest consequences. 

But, despite her early grand ambition and her much-vaunted resilience, May’s entire premiership was destined to be defined by one thing alone: Brexit.

Associated Press
Despite her early grand ambition and her much-vaunted resilience, May’s entire premiership was destined to be defined by one thing alone: Brexit.

Sir Anthony Seldon, a Downing Street historian, told HuffPost UK: “There has never been a past like this and that’s because the country’s never been divided like this. There’s no point looking to history for precedent, it is the most extreme political crisis since 1945. 

“She has had an almost impossible task of holding together her cabinet, the Conservative Party, and the country.”

With such a stark analysis of her political reality, it is perhaps little wonder the British public began to pity her.

According to an online poll by YouGov earlier this year, 55% of people say they have sympathy with the now-outgoing PM – rising to 74% amongst Conservative voters.

A decent proportion of people who have sympathy for her do so despite not really liking her,” YouGov’s Adam McDonnell explained. “It all stems from the 2017 election and that horrible party conference speech where everything went wrong.”

But Seldon said a much-overlooked aspect of May’s premiership has been her relative calm amid the stormy actions of Cabinet colleagues.

“She’s been the most grown-up person in the room,” he said. “She’s been blamed for matters that are well beyond her capacity to influence and affect.”

Up until 9.59pm on 8 June 2017, May was seen as a new Iron Lady, cast in the steel of Margaret Thatcher, with columnists using adjectives such as “solid” and “clear-sighted” and “steadying” to describe her premiership.

Daily Mail/Associated Newspapers
The Daily Mail had declared Theresa May 'the new Iron Lady'.

But then came the now infamous exit poll, with a result grandly declared by the BBC’s veteran political presenter David Dimbleby, shattering any illusions May was a Thatcher for the modern age.

“The Conservatives are the largest party,” Dimbleby said that night. “Note they don’t have an overall majority at this stage… that’s down 17.” According to two authoritative accounts of the election, May’s senior aides paled and panicked upon learning the exit poll numbers. The PM, meanwhile, reportedly shed tears upon learning of the prediction from her husband, Philip, at their marital home in Berkshire.

In the end, the prediction that May’s election gamble would cost the Tories 17 seats turned out to be overblown – the party lost 13 MPs – yet the fact there had been losses at all contradicted the game plan, dreamt up months earlier by May and her team of close advisors. It was all a far cry from the jubilation which greeted David Cameron’s election success in 2015.

Inevitably, the question on many people’s lips was just what had changed? “The main difference is her,” one senior campaign official told POLITICO a week before election day. “She’s not as good a candidate. No one could’ve been ready at such short notice, but you’re especially not ready if you’ve never run before.”

There were signs throughout the election that May was uneasy being at the heart of a presidential-style campaign. There was hyper-control of the news media, perfectly demonstrated when local newspaper reporters were locked up in a cupboard as May toured a factory. And May herself would be blamed for her somewhat “robotic” performances in media interviews.

While the failed election may well be what May is most remembered for – together with, of course, her doomed conference speech that same year – it would be Brexit that finally felled her.

Though, Sir Antony Seldon said, May does not leave office before potentially changing how history remembers her.

“I think that her conduct [has] lifted her entire premiership onto a plateau where she has earned respect from across the spectrum for the resilience and courage that’s she shown, and also she’s found a new level of clarity in what’s she saying,” Sir Anthony reflected. “All of that is true.”