How Theresa May became the latest prime minister to be beaten by Brexit

Analysis: Theresa May leaves Downing Street this summer having failed to pass the Brexit legislation on which she staked her reputation.
Image: BRITAIN-POLITICS-EU-BREXIT
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves after she announces her resignation outside 10 Downing street in central London on May 24, 2019.DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP - Getty Images

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By Rachel Elbaum and Patrick Smith

LONDON — When Theresa May became prime minister, she was hailed as a woman who could get things done. On Friday, she announced her resignation as one of the least popular British leaders of modern times.

Tasked to deliver the most important and divisive change in Britain since the World War II, she instead oversaw a two-and-a-half-year premiership marked by division, infighting and Brexit uncertainty.

It’s an ignoble end for the leader who was tasked in 2016 with steering the country through the Brexit process and promised a "strong and stable" government. But what legacy does May leave behind?

Formerly home secretary, in charge of domestic security policy and policing, May replaced David Cameron in June 2016, eventually standing unopposed in her party's leadership election after her rivals dropped out.

Cameron became the first political casualty of the shock Brexit referendum when he announced his intention to quit just hours after the result came out. Both leaders staked their reputations on Brexit and lost.

Steely determination

At first, May was hailed as a steely leader when she took power. A year earlier, in 2015, her party won an outright majority in House of Commons after working in a coalition government for the previous five years. The majority was small, but it seemed like enough to pass the monster Brexit legislation on the horizon.

Although May supported remaining in the E.U. during the referendum campaign, she pitched herself as a leader who could bring together the Conservative Party and unite a badly divided country.

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In those tasks she failed. The country appears even more bitterly divided on the question of its membership of the E.U. as it was at the time of the referendum.

European Parliament elections took place in the United Kingdom on Thursday — the result isn't due until Sunday. The Conservatives are expected to get as little as 7 percent of the national vote share, as Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party attracts disaffected Euroskeptic voters.

“It was assumed she would be a safe pair of hands, but she’s proved in fact to be remarkably clumsy,” said John Roberts, a U.K.-based senior fellow with the Atlantic Council think tank.

It all started going wrong for May in June 2017. Although an election had not been due until 2020, May took a gamble and called a surprise early election, seeking to bolster her strength ahead of what promised to be complex Brexit negotiations.

But instead of winning an increased majority, her party lost seats and was forced to rely on the small Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party in a coalition government.

It was not a marriage made in heaven. With only 10 seats at the time, the DUP received $1.26 billion for Northern Irish infrastructure and health projects in return for their support, a figure derided by opposition members of Parliament.

Negotiations with the E.U on the Brexit agreement dragged on — and when she finally brought the deal home from Brussels and presented it to lawmakers, they said "no thanks." In three votes, members of Parliament, including more than a third from her own party and her DUP coalition partners, rejected the deal by historic margins.

“The problem was that she didn’t start counting on day one, and only did when she suffered horrendous defeat. Everything that she’s done since has been too little too late,” Roberts said.

A public that once warmed to May as a no-nonsense, trusted manager found it hard to love a politician whose repetitive, monotonous soundbites had become overused to the point of parody. She said the phrase "strong and stable" at least 57 times during the 2017 general election campaign. Tabloid newspapers and Twitter jokers started calling her "the Maybot."

May's legacy

Her goal was to create stability and certainty for the U.K. but May leaves Downing Street with the public no closer to knowing what the outcome of the Brexit saga will be. Her successor — likely to be from the Euroskeptic right of the party — may favor a "no deal" Brexit in which the U.K. leaves the E.U. with minimal international agreements and trading partnerships.

And while politicians from across the Commons praised her drive and commitment Friday, observers worry that whatever happens the country's standing in the world is now diminished.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University, said: "She is one of the worst — if not the worst — prime minister this country has ever had. She had an opportunity which she grabbed. She’s an ambitious woman. But she’s gotten nothing done on the domestic front. She’s managed to humiliate the country in Europe and beyond, and managed to make a divisive situation worse than it needed to be."

But there is sympathy too for a leader placed into what many saw as an impossible situation. London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a frequent May critic, said that "her extremely difficult job was made impossible by the Brexit extremists within the Conservative Party."

Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, said: “As Britain’s second female prime minister, she has been a role model for girls and women across the United Kingdom, showing that there is no glass ceiling to their ambitions."

May is not the first prime minister to be brought down by the question of the U.K.’s place in Europe — and recent history suggests she won’t be the last. As she announced her departure Friday, May added that her successor would have to find a consensus in Parliament for a Brexit deal. They would, she added, have to compromise.

Instead of defeating the challenges she inherited as leader, she will pass them on to the next person to take up the role.