The Brexit Prime Minister? Assessing Theresa May’s legacy

An article co-authored by Professor Kevin Theakston on Theresa May's legacy as Prime Minister, is published by the LSE British Politics and Policy.

This is a re-post of the original post on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog

Theresa May’s real legacy is that her premiership exacerbated the political divides behind the ongoing breakdown of the Conservative-Labour duopoly of the party system, write Christopher Byrne, Nick Randall, and Kevin Theakston.

Followed Theresa May’s decision to step down as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party were not kind. The Times assessment was that her premiership had become a ‘humiliating failure… that was largely her own fault.’ ITV, reflecting the view of most other media outlets, described a legacy ‘defined by Brexit chaos.’ Private Eye went one better, leaving their front page blank except for the headline, ‘The Prime Minister’s Legacy in Full.’

One way of explaining the ‘Brexit chaos’ of the past several years is to ascribe it to May’s failings as a political leader. This is not hard to do. Her detractors will point to her poor handling of the Brexit negotiations and her fateful decision to hold a snap general election in June of 2017 as her two major missteps. They might ascribe difficulties in the Brexit process to the fact that May, who campaigned for Remain in the EU referendum, felt the need, largely for internal party management reasons, at the beginning of her premiership to burnish her Brexit credentials by adopting a ‘hard Brexit’ stance. To this end, she ruled out customs union and single market membership, and a continuing role for the European Court of Justice in British law, while also continuing to insist on ‘bespoke’ arrangements for the UK to ensure something like the economic status quo with the EU would continue.

Such ‘ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking’, as well as the under-resourcing of the civil service for the Brexit negotiations, was castigated by Sir Ivan Rogers, former UK ambassador to the EU, in his leaked resignation email in January of 2017. Similarly, we might pin the blame for the 2017 general election calamity on Theresa May’s dire public communication abilities and her lack of political vision.

May’s reluctance to meet ordinary members of the public during the campaign, combined with her robotic repetition of the Conservatives’ ‘Strong and Stable’ mantra, and her obstinacy in the aftermath of the ‘Dementia Tax’ U-turn (‘Nothing has changed!’), earned her the epithet of the ‘Maybot’, and she explicitly disavowed the existence of anything like ‘Mayism’ well before the general election. It is also true that these two failures fed into each other, in that losing the general election made the Brexit negotiations much more difficult, primarily because the government could no longer guarantee that any deal reached with the EU would be able to get through Parliament.

This critique is fair, but it overlooks the fact that Theresa May also occupied an unenviable position in political time. We argued in this blog in 2017 that her predecessor David Cameron became Prime Minister at a moment when the existing political regime — what we might call the neoliberal consensus — was deeply enervated. This was most clearly reflected in the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath, in the form of the recession that followed immediately after and the next decade of slow wage growth and public spending austerity.

Compounding these difficulties were the growing threat of Scottish independence and the emergence of UKIP as a major electoral force on the right. Cameron — the self-styled ‘heir to Blair’ — was affiliated to this highly vulnerable political regime and was, therefore, a disjunctive political leader, unable to repudiate the indefensible and forced to defend the dysfunctional. When Theresa May replaced Cameron in the wake of the referendum result, it was under the same conditions of political disjunction.

In one crucial respect May had an even tougher task than Cameron. The vote for Brexit not only represented a failure of Conservative statecraft, it was also in many respects a rejection of the prevailing political order. Support for Leave mirrored past support for UKIP, in that both did well among voters with no qualifications, older age groups, and in midlands and northern constituencies, and among people who wished to ‘Take back control’ of immigration.

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, it was incumbent upon her to tackle some of the grievances underlying the vote for Brexit, but the mandate she had been given was an unwelcome one, because it meant pursuing a policy with which she did not agree and thought would do serious damage to the UK economy, including in the same ‘left behind’ areas that voted for Brexit. Furthermore, the magnitude of Brexit as a process, necessitating major machinery of government changes and tortuous international negotiations over an indefinite number of years, inevitably monopolised the media and parliamentary agenda and stretched Whitehall’s governing capacity, making it difficult for May to focus on other important challenges.

Perhaps an even clearer illustration of the difficulties caused by May’s position in political time is the 2017 general election, in which she was expected to cruise to victory over a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn with an abysmal net favourability rating of -42 at the start of the campaign. May hoped to achieve a substantially increased Conservative majority, ostensibly to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations. Up until just a few weeks prior to election-day the Conservatives were 14-to-1 odds-on favourites to win a majority, but in the event Labour made significant gains and the Conservatives lost their small majority and were only able to continue in office after putting together a ‘confidence and supply’ deal with the DUP.

Although it is probably fair to say that May performed poorly in the campaign, and Labour avoided any major mishaps, the real reason for the upset was that the Conservatives’ offer to the electorate represented a spectacular misreading of the political moment. The message of the manifesto and of the campaign more broadly was one of continuity, at a time when there was a growing public appetite for change. The Conservative strategy was to capitalise on May’s then-high favourability ratings by running a highly personalised campaign, with her at the fore as a ‘safe pair of hands’ capable of delivering Brexit.

Voters had other ideas though: despite research showing that the public thought Brexit was the single most important issue facing the country at the time of the general election, 2017 was not the ‘Brexit election’. There was no significant swing towards anti-Brexit parties capable of accounting for the loss of Conservative seats. Instead, 2017 reflected Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘reconstructive’ appeal among a new cosmopolitan coalition of younger, more diverse and more educated voters with liberal social attitudes, mainly living in urban areas plugged into the global economy. The Conservative manifesto, with its focus on ‘Governing from the mainstream’, had very little to say to these people and, especially, to the public sector workers in their ninth year of austerity, younger people unable to afford to buy a home, and people grappling with the reality of low pay and highly precarious work in the ‘gig economy’.

What does all of this mean for assessments of Theresa May’s legacy? Most assessments thus far have overly personalized the ‘Brexit chaos’ and neglected the challenging context in which May operated, given her place in political time. However, her failings as a political leader have also undoubtedly contributed to the chaos and show how bad things can get when an already tricky political situation is mishandled. Therefore, perhaps May’s real legacy is to have exacerbated the political divides behind the ongoing breakdown of the Conservative-Labour duopoly of the party system.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ forthcoming book with Palgrave ‘Disjunctive Prime Ministerial Leadership in British Politics: From Baldwin to Brexit’ (expected early 2020).

About the Authors

Christopher Byrne is a Lecturer in Politics in the School of Social Sciences at Leeds Beckett University.

Nick Randall is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University.

Kevin Theakston is a Professor in the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds.