The month of May seems a somewhat ironic time for outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May to announce her departure. By leaving office in June, she will avoid the unwanted tag of being the shortest-lived Prime Minister the UK has had (the record is held by Gordon Brown). Has her time in office been a good one or otherwise?
KJM Today looks back on her tenure and what the immediate future might hold.
Above: Theresa May approaches the podium to announce her resignation as Prime Minister (Yui Mok via AP)
Theresa May was placed in an impossible situation by the convolutions of Brexit. Her apparent reputation as a bad Prime Minister was primarily due to having to take the fallout from her predecessor, David Cameron, who instigated a referendum and promptly left when it didn't go the way he (along with many others in the Westminster bubble) thought it would.
May did her best and what she thought was right in negotiating with the European Union over Brexit, but the EU gave her little in the way of options and, most significantly, far too many in her own Party, along with the opposition of Labour and the Liberal-Democrats, continually undermined her authority. She became stuck in limbo.
In Parliament at least, despite opinion to the contrary elsewhere around the country, almost everyone agreed that the UK should not leave the EU without a deal, but the EU were standing firmly behind the withdrawal agreement they had made. Whether or not that agreement was the right one is another matter but hardline Brexiteers made sure she couldn't get a majority with those conditions.
I think she wasn't the best Prime Minister the UK has had, but she is not the worst. Only her own party going against her made her position untenable.
I have met Theresa May, twice. Contrary to the reputation she has as being a little wooden and hard to speak with, I found her warm, engaging and quite happy to discuss things. Once she took office after David Cameron’s departure, I coined my own nickname for her; ‘The Kitten-Heeled Goddess’. I meant it with no malice, still don’t and it was due to her occasionally eye-catching footwear. Descriptions from others have been less flattering.
But was she a good Prime Minister? Its not quite as simple as that. One very obvious aspect to her premiership was that she became only the second female PM the UK has had and notably both were Conservative – something neither Labour nor the Liberal-Democrats has managed, despite their commitments to equality.
Theresa May, as PM, had two immediate drawbacks; the first was that the Tories made something of a mess of finding a new leader after David Cameron. The positioning of others had become apparent even before May’s predecessor had left and that undesirable aspect of preening ambition was always going to make Cameron’s successor’s life awkward. A election of a new leader (and thus PM) would have been more appropriate but the posturing of others resulted in a coronation instead. The second was that May, perhaps subconsciously, saw herself as Thatcher Mk II.
Britain’s first female PM had a reputation for being very steadfast and inflexible; she was, after all known as ‘The Iron Lady’. Kenneth Clarke subsequently referred to Theresa May as ‘a difficult woman’ and it was this that came to define May’s time as PM.
It is why Theresa May had a reputation for not listening. Allied to surrounding herself with unelected advisors (a trait shared by Tony Blair, David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn, none of whom, it seemed, were in favour of leaving the EU) meant that to many ordinary people, May was detached from reality. Whether she was or not.
The Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU over the UK’s departure was undoubtedly biased in favour of the EU; but it was still only an agreement over the terms of departure – nothing else. It was not a ‘Trade Deal’ or anything that would determine how the UK would live and work with the EU after Britain had left. And it was undoubtedly a failure to emphasise this that left May in a difficult position.
There was however, another aspect; when Theresa May took office, outside the Houses of Parliament on a sunny summer day in 2016, she made a number of bold statements about how she wanted to govern, all of which met with general approval. However, when asked her thoughts on Brexit, her only reply was ‘Brexit means Brexit.’
As I have written previously, what she should have done was make a clear and unambiguous statement that a majority of the people had voted to leave the EU so leave the UK would. Despite doing so, the UK would remain a steadfast and loyal ally of the EU and its member countries; that the UK would always stand alongside the EU in almost every way.
That we are and will always be friends and partners.
Above: Announcing that she will step down as PM in June (Reuters/Toby Melville)
A declaration that the UK would be so might not have solved all the problems but it would have gone a long way towards making the next two years less stressful.
Her third mistake was calling a general election when she didn’t need to. She was shockingly badly advised during the campaign and by putting her name above and beyond anything else resulted in direct comparisons as a personality with Jeremy Corbyn, and as I pointed out in my book, ‘Comments of a Common Man’ it was at a time when the Labour leader was able to demonstrate considerable skill as a communicator.
Theresa May was not a ‘bad’ Prime Minister. But she was not a good one either. That however, was made infinitely worse by the over-ambitious and pompous panjandrums around her in the House of Commons.
Brexit has been a long and drawn out process and has become exceedingly tiresome. Whatever the outcome - and yes, remainers still believe leaving is a not a foregone conclusion - it has taken far too long, and as yet there seems to be no end in sight. Nevertheless It has been almost been pleasing for fervent remainers to watch the Prime Minister floundering while trying to get a consensus on Brexit from members of parliament. Indeed, the continual stalling of the process has offered those who are pro-EU hope that the country might never leave.
There is no doubt the PM has shown a lack of leadership in failing to drive Brexit through to a conclusion. On that basis alone, it is quite right that she should step down and allow someone else to try. However, with change comes uncertainty and for remainers there must be some concern that the next PM could take a more determined line on leaving.
Even so, the PM cannot execute Brexit alone. Would Boris Johnson, or whoever replaces Theresa May, be more likely to get a parliamentary majority? Will the new PM command more respect among MPs just because they are new to the job? Many MPs have shown single mindedness throughout the Brexit process and have not toed the party line so will members of the divided Tory party chose the best candidate for the job - the best candidate for the country - or will their decisions be influenced by their stance on Brexit? It seems likely that Brexit is too big an issue to ignore, and on that basis individuals might ultimately support the candidate for PM that best represents their views on Brexit.
The new PM will still need a majority in parliament to get the Brexit deal approved. Theresa May dithered but most of the options were thrashed out and either dropped as unworkable or rejected by MPs. Can a new PM bring something different to the table? Are there any other options out there? Will the EU change its stance just because we have a new leader? Will MPs change their positions on Brexit and rally behind the new PM to get a deal? It all seems improbable as positions on Brexit have become far too deep-seated now. With nothing new to offer, the EU being unwilling to renegotiate, and entrenched views throughout the House of Commons, there must be some doubt as to whether the new PM will be able to move things forward any more efficiently or expediently than Theresa May.
A pro-Brexit PM could, of course, let the UK fall out of the EU by default. If we accept that there are no new options available and that MPs won’t alter their views on the deal that is already on the table, a change at the top could mean the country takes a giant leap towards a no deal exit. Stepping down was right thing for Theresa May to do, but what comes next could be much worse.
© KJM Today 2019
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