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Theresa May resigns: five moments that sank her premiership

Theresa May
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Theresa May
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Theresa May

Her exit comes as no surprise now but few were anticipating failure back in July 2016

In Depth
Friday, May 24, 2019 - 3:57pm

Theresa May has announced that she will step down as leader of the Conservative Party on 7 June, as her three-year tenure as prime minister draws to a disastrous close.

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The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush believes that history will not be kind to May. “She inherited a parliamentary majority with three years left to run and a comfortable opinion poll lead”, but will pass on “a deadlocked parliament and no obvious route to an overall Conservative victory”, he writes.

Although May was “hemmed in by hard-line Brexiteers and Remainers on either side”, she hardly helped matters by building “a reputation for making decisions via a tightly-knit group with an air of secrecy”, adds Bloomberg.

Yet few anticipated such an ending when, on 11 July 2016, May “emerged from the Commons as the new PM elect, surrounded by gushing sycophants, the darling buddies of May”, says The Times’ Patrick Kidd. Politics “seemed easy for her then,” he continues.

She looked even more at ease in the top job a week later when she invoked the spirit of Margaret Thatcher at her first PMQs - a move that “was like parliamentary Viagra to her honourable members”, says Kidd.

But after that, her leadership slowly began to unravel. Here are five of the moments that helped sink May’s premiership.

Losing her majority

In April 2017, in what was to be the first of many U-turn, May called a snap election, despite having ruled out such a move on a number of previous occasions.

The campaign was something of a disaster, with May defying predictions that the Tories would win a huge majority, leaving her reliant on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to cobble together a majority.

Indeed, The Spectator’s Rod Liddle described it as “the worst Tory election campaign ever”, while the BBC’s Laura Kuessberg noted that “May’s reputation crashed, arguably faster than any other in modern British political times”, in the aftermath of the vote.

One of the main things that hobbled the campaign was the Tories’ decision “to make it all about May’s personality, not realising she lacked one”, says The Times’s Kidd.

In addition, May’s manifesto was “a politically toxic document that insulted the young, offended the elderly and alienated the middle-aged”, says the New Statesman’s Bush.

The loss of the Tory government’s majority all but sealed the PM’s ultimate fate, he adds.

“Not only did her maladroit conduct of the 2017 campaign cost their majority and the careers of their colleagues and friends”, it also “locks them into a Brexit trajectory in which the only available exits are ones that most Conservative MPs fear will be politically disastrous”, Bush wrote back in December.

Reaction to Grenfell
Grenfell fire protest

In the aftermath of the disaster at Grenfell Tower that claimed 72 lives in June 2017, May drew ire for what HuffPost describes as her “infamous, almost inexplicable, failure to meet local people affected by the fire”.

The episode highlighted a major perceived failing of the PM’s personality - lack of empathy. Indeed, during the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, The Daily Telegraph’s Cathy Newman claimed that May had “a serious compassion deficit which could be her undoing”.

May acknowledged that she had made a mistake in her handling of the Grenfell tragedy, in an article in the London Evening Standard a year after the blaze. “Residents of Grenfell Tower needed to know that those in power recognised and understood their despair. And I will always regret that by not meeting them that day, it seemed as though I didn’t care,” she wrote.

Brexit deal defeats
Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions

The latter half of May’s time in office has been defined by successive rejections of her Brexit deal. The PM pulled the first parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal at the end of last year, acknowledging that it “would be rejected by a significant margin” if MPs voted on it. Instead, she hoped to avoid a humiliating defeat by returning to Brussels to seek to renegotiate the backstop.

As it turned out, when the meaningful vote finally did take place four weeks later, May suffered the heaviest parliamentary defeat of any British PM in modern history.

It was then that she made another grave error, says Sky News’ Lewis Goodall. “Even in January, she could have changed tack. She could have made a bold offer to Parliament. She could have compromised. She could have acted politically. Instead her strategy was to try and ram through the same thing again and again- to force MPs to bend through force of will,” Goodall tweeted.

Despite further record-breaking defeats, “she kept going, running on fumes, the slave of duty, insisting that she had been very clear about whatever it was she was clear about”, says The Times’s Kidd. But “it was seldom clear”, he adds.

Losing the game of ‘no-deal’ chicken
Yvette Cooper

That was not the end of her errors in the Brexit process. In February, May made “a grave mistake in not resisting Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin’s anti no-deal legislation more fiercely”, says The Spectator’s James Forsyth, who argues that this error “fatally compromised her ability to push her own deal through”.

“The only way to get a Brexit agreement through this hung parliament is to make either those who fear ‘no Brexit’ or those who worry about ‘no deal’ vote for the Bill,” he continues. “But that can only be done when MPs believe that not voting for a deal will lead to one of those outcomes.”

If the choice “had been between leaving with no deal and leaving with May’s deal on 29 March, Parliament would have taken the deal”, Forsyth concludes.

Refusal to compromise
Nigel Farage

May pleaded for future compromise over Brexit as she announced her resignation at the Downing Street podium. But “her political opponents are already remarking that’s a plea she only heeded far, far too late”, says the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.

In her last roll of the dice, May attempted to win over Labour MPs with changes to her Brexit deal, yet “she seemed wooden and inflexible even in seeking the compromises she so desperately needed”, says The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins.

Many commentators believe that in the end, it was this rigidity that ultimately put paid to any hope she had of carrying on as PM until autumn. By refusing to accept until the last minute that the European elections would take place, she gave Nigel Farage a free run at the Tory membership.

“Farage has one signature manoeuvre: he uses electoral vehicles, political parties of his creation as enormous electoral pressure groups on the Conservatives,” says Sky News’ Goodall.

“It was only when the Conservative’s popularity plunged, vote-share gobbled by the voracious new Brexit Party, only when activists began to defect in droves, that the axe was finally swung [on Theresa May’s premiership].”

Goodall concludes: “Farage can, arguably, claim the scalp of a second Conservative prime minister in a row.” 

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