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How Should We Feel About Theresa May?

She got a lot wrong. But those who fail to consider the impossible hand she was dealt are bound to have unrealistic expectations of her successor.

Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

On Friday, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that she will be resigning in two weeks. It came as little surprise. After nearly three years in office, the Brexit Prime Minister failed to deliver Brexit and now leaves her country with more division and less direction than when she started. History may not be kind, but hopefully it will be nuanced. While her errors were hers alone, her failures were not. In truth, the prime minister was put in an impossible position which neither she nor, likely, her successor could ever escape.

It’s not hard to come up with examples of where May went wrong. Upon becoming prime minister in 2016, she framed the Brexit debate in a way that ultimately spelled her ruin. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” May often said, threatening to pull the U.K. out of the EU with no trade framework if favorable concessions were not made. It was a bluff which the EU called by refusing to give her the terms her party would have recognized as a good deal. But at the same time, it was a bluff which her party bizarrely believed. Ignoring the evidence that it would force the U.K. to face a food shortage, a financial crisis, and violence at the Irish border, her party became hell-bent on a “hard” Brexit, hoping to leave the EU without membership in the single market, without membership in the customs union, or even without a deal. Ultimately, each of May’s three Brexit deals would be shot down by her own MPs—each because they were not hard enough.

May also decided to freeze out her opposition. Brexit, she determined, would become an in-house project for the Conservatives who enjoyed a majority in Parliament. Three long years later, however, the Conservatives were too fractured to function and May had to commit herself to a cross-party compromise. But it was too little, too late. Even last week, when she capitulated on everything the Conservatives cared about—conceding not only that the U.K. would remain in a customs arrangement with the EU, but also that parliament could vote to hold a second referendum—the ill will she had created with Labour could not be forgiven. That fourth Brexit bill was quietly pulled from the floor last week before she faced a final rejection, but not before the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn spoke out against it and her one last time.

Above all, there was the blunder of the 2017 snap election. Shortly after taking office, May decided to call for a general election that could build up an even greater majority for the Conservatives in the House of Commons, who already held a 98-seat advantage over Labour. It backfired. The Conservatives went on to lose thirteen seats as Labour won thirty. May lost her parliamentary majority and was forced to enter into a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party, a tiny Northern Irish group with extreme far right positions. Worse still, by bringing the DUP into a governing coalition, May brought out Brexit’s most intractable problem: the Irish border crisis. In the 2017 snap election, May bet the house and lost, squandering her party’s majority and binding her party to an extreme right wing. Nearly ever difficulty since then has been a product of that decision, a decision she made alone.

Even before her accession to the post of prime minister, May was contributing to the current political climate and to the problems that pulled her down. As Home Secretary under Prime Minister David Cameron, she established the “hostile environment policy” which saw the deportations and departures of over 250,000 people while she held the post. Her policies also helped produce the “Windrush Scandal” in which the subjects of former colonies—people born British citizens and now living in Britain—were stripped of their legal rights, detained, and in many cases deported. She played a part in a number of more peripheral outrages too: a stiff requirement for gay asylum seekers to prove they were gay, leading some to film themselves having sex; a van with billboards that threatened “Go Home or Face Arrest” circling through the mixed race neighborhoods of London; and a censorship plan, which failed, but which proposed that broadcasters submit their daily news programs for government review in the name of counter-extremism.

Her track record as a Member of Parliament before that was not much more inspiring. She voted against reducing the age of consent for gay couples and against allowing them to adopt, and she failed to show up for a vote that would scrap prohibitions on discussing homosexuality in school. For decades, Theresa May was hard at work entrenching a political system that was hostile to immigrants, refugees, minorities, and more. These were the sentiments that would drive the referendum, derail the negotiations, and divide the country.


History will not be kind to Theresa May. In many respects, it shouldn’t be. As she told her nation through tears on Friday that she was resigning, she was crying not for the victims of her “hostile environment policy” or of the Windrush Scandal but only for herself. But two things can be true at once. And, as the next prime minister’s tenure is likely to illustrate, Theresa May was also a victim of circumstances that long predate her and will long outlast her.

In May’s three years in office, her Conservative party became more extreme, her parliament became more polarized, and her people became more divided. While her no-deal bluff contributed to the first, her insistence on excluding Labour to the second, and her snap election to the third, she was far from alone in bringing these about and they will not disappear when she leaves.

The Conservatives’ rightward trend was visible long before May took office. The clearest indication of that was the 2014 European elections and the remarkable victory of the Independence Party (UKIP), Britain’s most extreme right wing (which has more recently been in the news for defending rape threats made by one of its members). The rise of the far right and the threat of defection put rightward pressure on the Conservatives, with the Brexit referendum being the chief concession to the Conservative base. These events played out years before Theresa May arrived and will continue, now with the rise of the Brexit Party, after she leaves. She may have done little to resist the trend, but there was in truth little she could do.

The problems she faced managing parliament were largely out of her control too. On her side of the floor, the party is populated by figures like Boris Johnson, her likely successor, and a self-described “blithering idiot.” In recent years, Johnson has opposed nearly everything Theresa May and David Cameron have said and done in order to hasten their fall and his rise. It has worked, but only at the expense of a healthy political system. Figures like Jacob Rees-Mogg, the detached aristocrat and top Conservative backbencher known for his double-breasted suits and intransigence on a hard Brexit, did not make May’s consensus-seeking any easier. Nor did MPs such as Mark Francois, who recently warned the European Union they “will be facing perfidious Albion on speed,” a threat with no obvious meaning but which represents the vacuous and unremitting rage that is increasingly prevalent in Theresa May’s party.

That cast of characters was, impossibly, hers to manage. Managing the other side wasn’t any easier.

For her three years in office, May has had to work with Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader who is likely the furthest to the left in the country’s history. Corbyn cut his teeth as a community activist in the 1970s and never lost the ardor, working in recent years to undo the “neoliberal” policies of his predecessors, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, by putting the nationalization of British industries back on the map, proposing tougher tax regimes and capital controls, and, separately, conducting outreach to highly questionable “friends” in Hezbollah and Hamas. Corbyn and May were worlds apart, as their successors will be too. Her failure to strike a cross-party compromise lies in no small part with the Labour leader, who, as May noted in January, was quicker to meet with paramilitary groups than with his own prime minister.

Public polarization, too, has remained remarkably steady over the past three years. The latest polling suggests that in a Brexit referendum today 52 percent of the public would vote remain and 45 percent of the public would leave. When Theresa May took office, those numbers were 48 percent for remain and 42 percent for leave. Although this may give us little indication of how a second referendum would actually turn out (British polling is famously poor), it does tell us that the down-the-middle division that exists today has existed for quite some time. Theresa May’s greatest fault on this front was believing that consensus could exist. In her remarks Friday, May said she had hoped to be the prime minister “for everyone and to honor the result of the EU referendum.” That was unfortunately unrealistic.

There is no denying that Theresa May was dealt a terrible hand: a polarized party, a polarized parliament, and a polarized public. On top of that, over the past three years much of the criticism against her has been undeniably sexist, with commentators regularly criticizing her appearance and her voice, with rivals jabbing her for not being able to have children, and with colleagues going to her husband to have her quit. Despite the treatment, however, Theresa May continued to give it her all, working through late night summits, delivering late night speeches, and rewarding her critics with cabinet spots they wanted.


As the country looks ahead to the next prime minister, it cannot continue to blame its crisis on the current prime minister. Theresa May certainly had her missteps and misdeeds, but ultimately her failure to deliver Brexit was not hers alone. At no point in the past three years was there the unity in her party or the majority in her parliament needed to pass a deal. Unfortunately for May’s successor, that unity and majority will not come when she goes.

In fact, the situation may only get worse. The Brexit Party is rising, political positions are entrenching, space for renegotiation is shrinking, and the clock is ticking. What little Prime Minister May could do, her successor will likely do less.