12 July 2019

Theresa May is trying to secure a legacy beyond Brexit but – like all prime ministers – she will only be remembered for what she did before announcing the date of her departure, says Tim Durrant.

As Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson continue to vie for the votes of Conservative Party members, Theresa May will spend the weekend celebrating three years in Downing Street. While this is longer than many expected, with less than a fortnight left in office she is very much at the tail-end of her premiership. However, the Prime Minister is keeping busy as she continues to focus on the non-Brexit issues that she hoped to tackle months ago.

May’s attempts to build a non-Brexit legacy are proving expensive

The Prime Minister is travelling the country and making speeches on issues which she clearly feels strongly about: the importance of the Union; housebuilding; tackling challenges faced by disabled people; and the building of a monument to the Windrush generation. These announcements – including the creation of the Office for Tackling Injustices – hark back to her first speech as Prime Minister in July 2016.

But this flurry of announcements risks rushing through poorly-designed, expensive policies. We have already seen a commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 approved by Parliament with no discussion of the challenges that such a target presents. And reports of a disagreement between Philip Hammond and the Prime Minister over how much money to make available for schools funding show that her ambitions are perhaps greater than her fiscally conservative Chancellor would like.

Previous prime ministers also spent their last days in office of in search of a legacy

David Cameron and Tony Blair were, like May, prime ministers who handed power to someone from their own party rather than losing it at a general election. And they also used their last few weeks in Downing Street trying to focus on issues other than the policies which ended up dominating their time in power.

Due to the curtailed Conservative leadership contest in 2016, Cameron only had around three weeks as a “caretaker” prime minister. He used that time to make speeches on British business successes, announced new schools and published plans for a monument (to British victims of overseas terrorism).

Tony Blair had over a month in 2007 between announcing his resignation and Gordon Brown taking over, though it was a long-expected handover. He also travelled the country and made speeches. These saw Blair make an announcement of extra support for young mothers, give a speech at a reception for charity leaders and setting out his views on the relationship between politicians and the media.

But the legacies of both prime ministers were established well before they embarked on their farewell tours. Whether your view of Cameron or Blair is positive or negative, it is likely to have been formed by the decisions they took at the height of their power, rather than in the dying days of their administrations.

Ultimately, the Prime Minister will be remembered for failing to see Brexit over the line

Theresa May will face the same issue. Her legacy will not be as someone who argued for more funding for schools against a recalcitrant Treasury, or as the creator of the Government Equalities Hub. Worthy as these decisions may be, Theresa May will, in the end, be remembered as the Prime Minister who was unable to get the UK out of the EU. That legacy was established months ago.

When accounts of Theresa May's time as Prime Minister are written in the years to come, political historians may yet reassess her tenure. Despite Theresa May's attempts to rewrite her legacy in a few short weeks before leaving office, their debates are unlikely to be informed by the hurried announcements that she made after handing in her notice.

Comments

I am not completely certain that you are right to think she could not be remembered for something she now does. Her successor as Leader of the Conservative Party will not have a Conservative majority in the House - and even with the DUP the margin is narrow. If Johnson succeeds he will have a large awkward squad. Theresa May has already made her lack of affection for Johnson clear. She may yet spike his cup with poison... She is certainly doing her best to ensure that there is no money left

David Cameron was proud that he had locked the UK tax-payer into contributing 0.7% GDP in overseas aid. Now Mrs. May says she will commit the UK tax-payer to £1.4 billions over three years to countries with have malaria, TB and AIDS. What right do exiting Prime Ministers have to use tax-payers money to pay for their "legacies"? Any expenditure outside the UK should be with the agreement of the people. It is my understanding of a legacy is that the legatee gives away their own money, not that of others. They could al least have the decency to ask us if we agree, otherwise the money should be used for public services, not in the aggrandisement of departing PMs. Who know what previous PMs spent our money on.