May: The Conservative Leader Brought Down by Brexit
Britain’s second female prime minister, like the first, has ultimately been brought down by Conservative in-fighting over Europe.
But Theresa May is unlikely to join Margaret Thatcher in the annals of leaders who left an indelible mark on their country. At least not in the way she might have wanted when she entered Downing Street in July 2016.
Whatever ambitions she had – to reach out to the forgotten parts of the nation, or correct the “burning injustices” in British society – were overshadowed by a single word: Brexit.
Her almost three years in office were entirely defined by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, and her increasingly desperate efforts to deliver on the outcome of the referendum called by her predecessor David Cameron.
Even her sternest critics had to marvel at her ability to soak up the punishment that came, in wave after wave, from all sides.
Ministerial resignations and parliamentary rebellions that would have spelled the end for a prime minister in normal times seemed to bounce off her. She ploughed on, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around her, telling MPs “nothing has changed” and promising to deliver on the “will” of British people, even as her power over Parliament and control of her warring party drained away to nothing.
It might have been different had she managed to win the 2017 general election.
But instead of returning to Downing Street with a huge mandate of her own, as she had expected, she lost her Commons majority and had to rely on the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
She never really recovered from this self-inflicted wound, with a sense that many of her MPs were only keeping her in office until she had delivered Brexit before jettisoning her in favour of a more voter-friendly alternative.
At one point, she had to promise she would quit before the next scheduled election in 2022, as she battled to win a no-confidence vote organised by her own MPs.
And then, as the end neared – and she had alienated many MPs by blaming them for the deadlock over Brexit – she was forced, finally, to accept that the party, which had never elected her as leader, did not want her to serve any more.
She offered her own departure as the final sacrifice to her internal critics, telling them she would stand down if they voted for her EU withdrawal deal.
A venerable Tory colleague once described Theresa May as a “bloody difficult woman”. She wore the label as a badge of honour.
She was said to have a dry wit in private, but her public persona, even when she was trying to lighten up, could be wooden and forced, and even close colleagues were said to have difficulty working out what she was really thinking.
Her single-minded, unshowy and diligent approach to politics enabled her to steadily navigate her way to the very top of a party that had traditionally favoured men from more privileged backgrounds than her own when she had first joined it in the late 1970s.
And despite what it must feel like right now, Brexit will not be her only political epitaph.
The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Hubert, who died from injuries sustained in a car crash when she was 25, Mrs May said her father had taught her to “take people as you find them” and “treat everyone equally”.
Born in Eastbourne, East Sussex, but raised largely in Oxfordshire, she attended a state primary, an independent convent school and then a grammar school in the village of Wheatley, which became the Wheatley Park Comprehensive School during her time there.
The young Theresa Brasier, as she was then, threw herself into village life, taking part in a pantomime that was produced by her father and working in the bakery on Saturdays to earn pocket money.
Friends recall a tall, fashion-conscious young woman who, from an early age, spoke of her ambition to be the first woman prime minister.
In 1976, in her third year at Oxford University, she met her husband Philip, who was two years younger than her and president of the Oxford Union, a well-known breeding ground for future political leaders.
They were introduced at a Conservative Association disco by future Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Both claim it was “love at first sight”. They married in 1980.
There are no tales of drunken student revelry from Mrs May’s time at Oxford, but friends say she was not the austere figure she would later come to be seen as, suggesting she had a sense of fun and a full social life.
After graduating with a degree in geography, May went to work in the City, initially starting work at the Bank of England and later rising to become head of the European Affairs Unit of the Association for Payment Clearing Services.
She first dipped her toe in the political water in 1992, when she stood in the safe Labour seat of North West Durham, coming a distant second. Her fellow candidates in that contest also included a very youthful Tim Farron, who went on to become a Lib Dem leader.
Two years later, she stood in Barking, east London, in a by-election where – with the Conservative government at the height of its unpopularity – she got fewer than 2,000 votes and saw her vote share dip more than 20%. But her luck was about to change.
The Conservatives’ electoral fortunes may have hit a nadir in 1997, when Tony Blair came to power in a Labour landslide, but there was a silver lining for the party and for the aspiring politician when she won the seat of Maidenhead in Berkshire, having beaten her future chancellor Philip Hammond to be selected as the candidate. It’s a seat she has held ever since.
An early advocate of Conservative “modernisation” in the wilderness years that followed, Mrs May quickly joined the shadow cabinet in 1999, under William Hague, as shadow education secretary and in 2002 she became the party’s first female chairman under Iain Duncan Smith.
She launched a drive to get more women selected as Conservative candidates in winnable seats but antagonised the party’s grass roots by telling them in a conference speech that they were still seen by some as “the nasty party” and had to change their ways.
She was initially appointed shadow leader of the House of Commons, but gradually raised her standing and by 2009 had become shadow work and pensions secretary.
Nevertheless, her promotion to the job of home secretary when the Conservatives joined with the Lib Dems to form the first coalition government in 70 years was still something of a surprise – given that Chris Grayling had been shadowing the brief in opposition.
The Home Office had proved to be the kiss of death for many a promising political career, but Mrs May refused to let this happen to her.
Theresa May initially fell down the pecking order under David Cameron but worked her way back up
She became the longest-serving occupant of the office in recent history, staying in the post for six years, and developing a reputation as a tough operator who would always fight her corner. She became Conservative leader and prime minister in July 2016 without a general election, following the resignation of David Cameron.
Like Mr Cameron, she had been against Brexit but she cleverly managed to keep the Eurosceptics in her party on side during the referendum campaign by keeping a low profile.
She reaped her reward by emerging as the unchallenged successor to Mr Cameron, as other potential rivals fell by the wayside – portraying herself as a steady pair of hands who would deliver the will of the people and take Britain out of the EU in as orderly a fashion as possible.
At 59, she was the oldest leader to enter Downing Street since James Callaghan in 1976.