24 May 2019

Bronwen Maddox argues that Theresa May's legacy is little more than a failure to deliver Brexit and a painful illustration of the huge challenge that awaits her successor.

It was her second best speech in almost three years as Prime Minister. Her best was her first one, also on the steps of Downing Street, when starting the job.

She made a brave attempt at recounting a wider legacy in a premiership that was always going to be remembered for Brexit alone. But with a striking resemblance to that first speech, it still sounded like a wish list for an incoming prime minister, not a record of actual success.

Theresa May's premiership has highlighted the Conservative Party's deep Brexit divisions

Her greatest achievement is intertwined with her great failure. In her attempt to secure Brexit, she burnt up three years and much goodwill in the European Union, but she did in the process at least illustrate the huge obstacles to a deal that stem from the EU’s objectives, from the divisions in Parliament and the country – and the divisions in her own party, which have now brought down four leaders. That is the real legacy her successor will inherit.

She emerged as Prime Minister precisely because of the divisions of Brexit; she was a figure who could supposedly reach across the Remain–Leave divide. Indisputably, she made a formidable task – one that may still prove impossible – even harder. Her early red lines, designed to please the Brexit wing of her party, boxed in her negotiations with the EU. Nor did she find the vision and words to sell her deal with the EU to Parliament. Her rigidity, extreme reserve and lack of persuasive qualities were striking in someone who made it to the top job in politics.

But the divisions remain. She did not invent them, certainly not in her party, although they are deeper and more bitter in Parliament and the country than they were three years ago. The Conservative Party leadership contest will be a hustings for those who claim that they can do better. The parliamentary arithmetic remains a huge obstacle, however. So does the reluctance of the EU to renegotiate its deal, other than in a “softer” direction which the next Conservative leader, almost certainly from the harder Brexit persuasion, will not want to explore.  

It is a bleak point to make, but Theresa May’s greatest achievement is to have illustrated the depth of those divisions. Her second greatest, again by illustration, is to warn any leader of the dangers of calling a general election – even if her own personal shortcomings as a politician were a prime reason for the loss of her majority.

There is little to Theresa May's legacy beyond failing to deliver Brexit

Of the rest of her legacy, it is slight. And was always likely to be. With no parliamentary majority, a party and Cabinet divided by the referendum result and unable to mask personal ambitions, and energy consumed by Brexit, she had little chance to make progress on any of the agendas which she might have wanted to make the centrepiece of her premiership. Arguably the strongest part is economic, even though she never got on with her Chancellor Philip Hammond. The deficit has continued to shrink; growth has stuttered with the uncertainty of Brexit, but employment is now at record levels.

The failures are more obvious. Her own policies as Home Secretary – her design of the “hostile environment” for immigrants – led to the Windrush scandal. Her desire to tackle “burning injustices”, that she expressed when she became Prime Minister, appeared heartfelt – and she returned to it in her resignation speech – and professions of her personal commitment to help mental health also remained consistent. But she was not able to make real inroads into those, partly because of the tightness of spending constraints her government chose to maintain. Those led to a deterioration of key public services on her watch, notably social care, and prisons and courts. As a former Home Secretary, she cannot have been under any illusions about the impact of those cuts. She did back Jeremy Hunt, when he was Health Secretary, in a £20bn boost for the NHS’s annual budget, but that money has yet to flow in, nor does it solve the NHS’s long-term funding predicament.

Big infrastructure decisions did get made but may still be unmade; HS2 and Heathrow’s expansion (particularly if Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister) do not look certain to go ahead.

The Brexit theatre inevitably detracted from the UK’s reputation in the world. Her early attempt to assert a special relationship with the US got off badly, though it was her misfortune to be in office at the same time as the most unpredictable US President in living memory. US trade negotiators remain clear that they are uninclined to compromise on the demands they will make for access for their products, chlorinated chickens and all, if the UK does pursue a trade deal with the US. Although she appears to have timed her departure to fall at the end of President Trump’s visit to the UK, reports suggest he is more excited by his encounters with the Queen.

The sentiments she displayed in her resignation speech rang true. She wanted to make the UK a real union – a task made all the more complicated by the pressures of Brexit – and a country that works for everyone. But it was no more than a statement of what she would like to have done in a premiership that was created to achieve Brexit, and failed.