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Theresa May: A legacy sunk by Brexit

Tuesday July 23 2019

Theresa May

Former Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May in Newport, Wales, on April 25, 2017. FILE PHOTO | POOL | REBECCA NADEN | AFP | 

AFP
By AFP
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LONDON

Theresa May had a mission to fight Britain's "burning injustices" through strong and stable leadership -- but her legacy as prime minister will be anything but.

The Conservative premier's turbulent time in office was swamped and ultimately sunk by her legacy-defining battle to secure a Brexit divorce deal.

LEADER

It eroded her authority and led her to step down as leader, handing over the keys to Downing Street to either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt on Wednesday after a month-long contest to replace her.

May won praise for her determination and ability to survive a rolling three-year political crisis since the referendum vote to leave the European Union.

But her approach to the Brexit endgame, refusing to accept MPs' trenchant opposition to her deal before belatedly opening ultimately futile negotiations with the Labour main opposition, left May politically adrift.

In a forlorn bid in March to appease the most ardent eurosceptic MPs in her party, May, 62, offered to resign if they finally approved her deal.

But several dozen rebelled anyway, consigning it to a third defeat in parliament and leaving her premiership mortally weakened.

She was forced by her party to agree to set out a timetable for her departure, but asked for time to give lawmakers a fourth chance to vote on the agreement in early June.

However, her own MPs' patience ran out and she was forced in May to name the date of her departure, triggering the fevered leadership race to replace her.

"She has failed," said Simon Usherwood, from the University of Surrey's politics department. "There's very little to commend her.

"She doesn't really have a legacy".

May's last major act as leader was to welcome US President Donald Trump on a state visit to Britain, but symbolic of their fractious relationship, the two still had time for one last falling out.

The president tweeted that May had made "a mess" of Brexit, while the prime minister slammed his recent controversial comments against US congresswomen of colour as "completely unacceptable".

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, May was born on October 1, 1956 in Eastbourne -- a seaside town in southern England where her father was a chaplain at the local hospital.

She has described herself in interviews as a "goody two shoes" whose Protestant faith defined her upbringing.

She listened to cricket matches on the radio with her father, watching from the stands last week as England won their first World Cup, and knew that she wanted to become a politician when she was just 12.

PUBLIC SERVICE

May studied geography and met her husband Philip at Oxford University before joining the Bank of England.

The two never had children and May devoted herself to a life of public service that saw her become Conservative Party chairwoman in 2002.

May made her first splash by telling an annual conference that the Conservatives would have to shed their image as "the nasty party" if they wanted to unseat then-popular Labour premier Tony Blair.

But a 2010-16 stint as home secretary saw May adopt isolationist rhetoric that included a vow to create "a really hostile environment for illegal migration".

She became prime minister in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum which swept away her predecessor David Cameron.

She took office pledging to fight the "burning injustices" in British society, but made little headway as her entire premiership became dominated by the Brexit drama.

Despite having made a cautious case to stay in the EU, May embraced the cause with the mantra "Brexit means Brexit".

Her promise to leave the EU's institutions and end free movement of workers delighted eurosceptic MPs, but caused dismay among many pro-Europeans.

The splits in her Conservative Party became a serious problem after a disastrous snap election in June 2017, when she lost her parliamentary majority.

May was forced to strike a deal for support with Northern Ireland's pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party, and struggled to keep her party and its allies together.

Naturally reserved, she failed to engage with voters in the 2017 campaign and was dubbed the "Maybot" after churning out the same soundbites over and over again.

May was written off several times before announcing on May 24 that she would step down.

Columnist Matthew Parris -- a former Conservative MP -- called her the "zombie prime minister" for her ability to stagger on despite multiple attacks.

She survived a no-confidence vote and the resignations of a string of high-profile Brexit supporters.

But ultimately her closed style of leadership and Brexit gridlock in parliament doomed her premiership.

"It's hard to think of a Tory politician who would have been the perfect PM in such circumstances," Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, told AFP.

"But it's just as hard to think of anyone who would have been much worse than her.