Theresa May brought fortitude and commitment as Britain's second female prime minister
Profile: Brexit proved an insurmountable hurdle for the dogged Conservative
When the political obituary of Theresa May is written, the word Brexit will be written through it like centre of the country’s well-known seaside treat Blackpool Rock.
Britain’s second female prime minister owed her elevation to the post to the shockwave after the country voted to leave the EU in a referendum in 2016.
Predecessor David Cameron walked out of the job – just a year after securing the Conservatives first overall majority since 1992 following the shock result.
It was not that Mrs May was not qualified for the top job. A serious and diligent political veteran she had attended Oxford University, worked for the Bank of England and served as chairman of her party and Home Secretary.
Family members said she set sights on Number 10 Downing St from a young age. Andy Parrott, a cousin, has told journalists that she was a sixth form schoolgirl when she first revealed the ambition to him.
Except that she had wanted to be the first woman to break through the glass ceiling and declared she was unhappy when Margaret Thatcher grabbed the Conservative reins in 1975.
Finally ascending the summit of ambition at the age of 59, Mrs May binned her belief that Britain should remain in the EU as she took on the historic task of securing the British exit. “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it,” she declared.
In the end she failed to achieve the task in the 1045 days before her resignation, still four days short of the period in office of Gordon Brown, the ex-Labour prime minister.
In fact the resignation was the culmination of a prolonged struggle to hold on to office. Former leaders Conservative leaders Mr Cameron and Margaret Thatcher left high office amid rows over the European Union. It was the defining obsession of Sir John Major’s time in Downing St too.
The game was up in March when Mrs May was forced to go to Europe to ask for an extension to the original leaving date of March 29. On numerous occasions she had made that promised to the British people. “We are very clear — we will be leaving the EU on 29 March 2019 at 11 p.m,” she said on Dec 20, 2017.
With all factions in the House of Commons clinging to their idealised forms of exit, agreement around the withdrawal deal with Brussels became impossible. Three times she had failed to get up and down approval. The House itself took to control of its own business but could do no better. Finally she promised legislation that would have ideas from all sides. “I sought the changes MPs demanded,” she ruefully observed on Tuesday. “I offered to give up the job I love earlier than I would like.”
Once again her best was not enough. Only loyalists could back her and many that were formerly on board walked away.
It is hard to recall after such a torturous power struggle but Mrs May enjoyed a nearly year-long honeymoon in Downing St. Then in June 2017 she called a general election. Her campaigning skills were cruelly exposed.
Some in her inner circle thought a victory of the scale racked up by Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair with a triple digit majority was inevitable. After all the opposition was led by a hardline socialist – a bogeyman the Conservative party was confident of sweeping aside.
Mrs May’s husband Philip, who had been president of the Oxford Conservatives, a post that can be a launching pad for a political career, confided his misgivings, warning her aides of what was at stake for the couple. Chris Wilkins, the director of strategy, said Philip May had reservations about the election. “The point he made was that while he could understand all the arguments we were making, we had to understand what a big risk it was for them as a couple, and he said we had to appreciate that it had taken them years to get to the position of being in No 10, and we were asking them to put that all at risk,” he said.
While the Conservative secured 42.5 per cent of the vote, the highest poll in a generation, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party shot up ten percentage points to 40 per cent. A fraction short leaving Mrs May at the head of a minority government. Her authority was gone.
Rising up what Benjamin Disraeli, the Victorian prime minister, described as politics greasy poll, Mrs May had been a moderniser. As the chairman she had dubbed her own side the “nasty party” for its out of touch attitudes.
“Why has the public become so cynical about politics and politicians?” she asked her fellow party members. “If we're being honest I think we know the answer. In recent years a number of politicians have behaved disgracefully and then compounded their offences by trying to evade responsibility. We all know who they are.”
As Home Secretary under Mr Cameron Mrs May parted company with the modernising wing. She became known for the so-called Hostile Environment policy that was designed to curb migration. The Windrush Generation scandal that saw British-born people returned to the Carribean islands their parents left in the 1950s was the product of this.
Her style of politics was resolutely grounded in her upbringing. Asked for an example of childhood rebellion, she could only talk about annoying farmers by running through wheat fields.
The only child of a Conservative supporting mother and clergyman father, she was born in the seaside town of Eastbourne and has MP for the traditionally safe seat of Maidenhead since 1997. Her weekly routine is anchored by a Sunday morning visit to her village church. She is not even the most famous resident of Sonning, the quiet Thameside settlement. That would be George Clooney, the Hollywood actor.
At Oxford she met and befriend a rich mix from Benazir Bhutto, the assassinated prime minister of Pakistan to an array of front line politicans, including her former defacto deputy, Damian Green, and Sir Alan Duncan, currently a foreign office minister.
Charts show she also lost ministerial colleagues at a record rate -- almost 40 resignations since June 2017. Senior quitters now seeking to succeed her include Boris Johnson, the ex-Foreign Secretary and Dominic Raab, the former Brexit secretary.
Indefatigable devotion to her cause was not enough to carry Mrs May through to that final arduous victory to cap a career of so little cheer.
Updated: May 24, 2019 02:23 PM