Cartoon by Joep Bertrams
Theresa May never had a grip on the crown that fell into her lap
The Guardian: Theresa May will ultimately be remembered as the prime minister who was defeated by Brexit. Her task was to reconcile a nation split by the surprise referendum result. But if it was possible to achieve a graceful exit from the European Union, or indeed any exit, May utterly failed to negotiate it.
The crown had fallen unexpectedly into her lap. David Cameron and George Osborne had already catastrophically misjudged the public mood over Europe (as May was to three years later). Boris Johnson had misjudged his relationship with Michael Gove.
She gave the appearance of the only remaining grown-up in the race, and when her last remaining rival, Andrea Leadsom, pulled out, May entered No 10 in July 2016, just three weeks after the referendum. However, the meticulous but cautious home secretary had had no real time to work up an agenda for government.
There was no obvious blueprint for Brexit, which May had, ironically, come out against during the referendum campaign. So as the new prime minister arrived in Downing Street, she made a pledge about something else.
May promised to fight “burning injustice” – and on her first day in office said she aimed to reverse the disadvantages of race, class, gender and even youth. She fired Osborne, brought in chief Brexiter Johnson as foreign secretary and promised in her first party conference speech “change is going to come”.
They were ideas that came from one of the two key advisers in the first phase of her premiership, Nick Timothy, who sought to position May as a supporter of ordinary Britons. “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” she declared in an anti-elitist sideswipe from the same conference speech.
In reality, May delivered only limited social reforms. Ultimately, Brexit dominated her premiership and, in the end, little else could be achieved.
She repeatedly described politics as a duty, sticking to her Brexit plans with a grim determination or stubbornness that surprised and ultimately alienated even her closest supporters. Famously introverted, she relied on a tight circle of advisers – officials and aides normally – and rarely on elected colleagues.
But she struggled to engender loyalty among those who once served her closely. Key supporters were easily discarded and many later turned on her – Timothy, who took the blame for the 2017 election disaster, or Gavin Williamson who propped her up after it only to be sacked from the cabinet two years later over the Huawei leaks.
Chris Wilkins, a speechwriter who had worked with her as home secretary and prime minister, said: “There was a long period when I would have run through walls for her. But once she you had stopped working for her, there was no warmth, no ongoing relationship.”
The new prime minister began uncompromisingly enough though. She made a Brexit speech at the same 2016 party conference promising that Britain would become “a fully independent, sovereign country”.
It was a hard Brexit vision that implied leaving the customs union and single market, which it was not obvious a majority of Britons had voted for. But it defined the pure Brexit that for her gradually growing numbers of rightwing critics became an article of faith >>>