Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 9 December 2019

Theresa May fails to secure positive legacy as tenure comes to a close

Mrs May's last month in office involved a spat with the US and increasing tensions with Iran

Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street for her final Prime Minister's Questions on July 24, 2019. Getty Images
Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street for her final Prime Minister's Questions on July 24, 2019. Getty Images

Following the Conservative Party’s worst performance in a national election in living memory, Theresa May stepped up to a podium in Downing Street on May 24 to accept that her leadership had run out of road and she would be stepping down when a successor was elected.

The cause of her demise was the failure by the government to deliver on the result of the 2016 referendum to leave the EU despite three years of intense negotiations.

“It is, and will always remain, a matter of deep regret to me that I have not been able to deliver Brexit,” the British prime minister said, holding back tears.

“I will shortly leave the job that it has been the honour of my life to hold... I do so with no ill-will, but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.”

On Wednesday, Mrs May will take her final Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons before returning to Downing Street. She is expected to make a short speech there before setting off for Buckingham Palace to meet incoming PM Boris Johnson and offer her resignation to the Queen.

The UK’s second female prime minister will probably breathe a sigh of relief as she is whisked away from Buckingham Palace and the stresses and strains of leading a country so divided by the issue of Brexit.

Her last month in office was as eventful as any other in her premiership. On the foreign stage, a ramping up of tensions with Iran as British Royal Marines seized the Iranian tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar on July 4. The IRGC retaliated on July 19, seizing British-flagged tanker Stena Impero after an earlier attempt was seen off by the British Navy.

Mrs May chaired a meeting of the government's emergency committee Cobra on Monday to plan a response to the crisis, a day after chancellor Philip Hammond denied the government had taken its "eye off the ball" due to issues closer to home.

Compared to his highly predictable predecessor Theresa May, Boris Johnson is moving at breakneck speed in multiple directions AFP
Compared to his highly predictable predecessor Theresa May, Boris Johnson is moving at breakneck speed in multiple directions AFP

Just when the UK would be looking to the US for support on the tanker fracas, a bombshell leak of Foreign Office cables showed Britain’s ambassador to the US Kim Darroch reporting an “inept” and “utterly dysfunctional” Trump administration. Mr Darroch stepped down shortly after, leading some to push Mrs May to appoint his successor before Mr Johnson took over as PM. She failed to do so.

Donald Trump unleashed a tirade against Mr Darroch on Twitter calling him “stupid” and “wacky”. Mrs May was also caught in the line of fire as Mr Trump criticised her approach to Brexit.

“I told Theresa May how to do that deal, but she went her own foolish way - was unable to get it done,” he wrote on July 9.

Just weeks later, Mrs May took the opportunity to strike back at the US President after he said four Democratic congresswoman from minority backgrounds should "go home".

“The prime minister’s view is that the language that was used to refer to those women was completely unacceptable,” Mrs May’s spokesman said on Monday.

As her last days in office loomed, the British leader released a flurry of policies and promises in an attempt to secure a legacy that is not entirely about her failure to guide the UK out of the EU.

Among these new plans are a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050, a £27 billion pledge for education over three years and a focus on mental health, which she said in June should be given the "urgent attention it deserves".

However, if she was hoping these policies would help her leave on a high, she was sorely mistaken. On Monday, Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke was arrested on charges of sexual assault. Mr Elphicke, 48, was suspended from the party in 2017 after allegations against him, but he was reinstated just before a vote of no confidence in Theresa May in December 2018.

The legacy she leaves behind is a fundamentally divided nation. the nation

Mrs May took over from David Cameron in June 2016, becoming the last person standing as other candidates, including Boris Johnson, dropped out of the race for the poison chalice of handling Brexit. Despite three years and three failed votes on her withdrawal bill, she did not manage to quell the dissent in her party’s ranks or bring other parties to the table to pass the legislation.

From being dubbed ‘the Maybot’ for her machine-like dance moves in South Africa to confessing the naughtiest thing she did as a child was run through a field of wheat, Mrs May has at-times become a figure of fun for the public. These cringe-worthy missteps have helped rivals paint her as an awkward woman with trouble connecting with other world leaders and making big decisions.

Perhaps she was cowed by her 2017 decision to call a snap general election, which led the Tories to lose its parliamentary majority, exacerbating her problems bringing her party together to deliver Brexit. From then on, as much as she promised compromise on the big issues of the Irish border and the single market, she just couldn’t bring rebels into line.

Updated: July 24, 2019 04:04 PM

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