IT’S A DANGEROUS thing for any leader to take the support of their followers for granted. Just ask Theresa May. The outgoing British Prime Minister, who resigned as leader of her party last week, will go down in history as one of the least successful premieres of the UK.
May arrived at Downing Street with many advantages. While the shock Brexit result sent British politics into a tailspin, she was handed a strong parliamentary majority amassed under David Cameron’s stewardship. She chose to let Brexit come to define her tenure, pledging from the start that “Brexit means Brexit.” She failed to deliver.
It is true to say not all of May’s undoing was down to her. She was handed a very difficult situation to manage. Yet while the bulk of her parliament time was spent on non-Brexit issues, she failed to make truly significant headway on those. Her botched handling of the Windrush scandal, which saw Amber Rudd resign, only to be rehired, was lackluster.
There were monumental unforced errors. Presuming her party enjoyed widespread support, she called an early general election in an attempt to bolster her majority. It was this single reckless decision that, ultimately, became her undoing. A hung parliament ensued, rendering the Prime Minister more vulnerable than ever.
She promised a “strong and stable” administration. But got a result that turned hers into a minority government, pitted factions of her Conservative party against one another, and forced a confidence and supply arrangement with backward-looking parties. Resting on such a fragile coalition, it was little wonder May failed, three times, to get her Brexit deal passed. In the process, she suffered the largest Westminster defeat in history.
Very early on, May was criticised for relying on a very small circle of advisers. After the general election she was faced with an exodus of staff members, including two figures blamed for the disaster at the polls: Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. But in overhauling her team, May resorted to appointing figures she was familiar with from her time at the UK Home Office. Perhaps she was simply rewarding loyalty, but in the end this deepened the perception of insularity. If May seemed unable to open herself up to the contributions of the various wings of her fractious party, she was certainly unable to please them all.
The infamous Chequers plan triggered the resignation of her Brexit Secretary, David Davis, and her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson – who is now a lead contender to replace her.
Few will forget the image of her disastrous 2017 party conference speech in which she coughed uncontrollably as the backdrop fell apart. That was, sadly, the defining moment of May’s astonishingly bleak tenure.