In a recent study conducted by the University of Leeds Theresa May was ranked the joint worst post-war Prime Minister. The survey was based on the he views of 93 academics from 44 universities.
On the 10th May 1940 Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. That very same day Germany launched its Blitzkrieg offensive into France. Arguably, only Churchill or his biographer, Boris Johnson, have faced more difficult political circumstances upon becoming Prime Minister than Theresa May. Just as Churchill’s first ministry was defined entirely by World War Two, Theresa May’s premiership has been defined entirely by Brexit. History may well be a little kinder to her than her contemporaries. However, it remains that Theresa May’s premiership is a prime example of a PM with a lack of control over the key events they face.
Theresa May had a good resume before becoming Prime Minister. She had been the longest serving Home Secretary for over 60 years and was widely seen as a competent Minister. During the EU Referendum in 2016 Theresa May backed Britain to remain in the EU. However, she positioned herself carefully, and by no means could be said to be one of the faces of the Remain Campaign.
Following the referendum, May stood to replace David Cameron. She said that she would give “strong leadership” and confirmed that she would carry out the wishes of the 17.4 million people who voted in the referendum and famously said that “Brexit means Brexit”. May won the first ballot with 50.2% of Conservative MPs voting for her and won the second ballot with 60.5% voting in her favour. After Andrea Leadsom withdrew, her candidacy did not need to go to the wider Conservative Party and she became Conservative Party leader with a clear mandate from the parliamentary party.
On the 13th July 2016 Theresa May became Britain’s second female Prime Minister. Her first cabinet saw her make drastic changes. Nine of Cameron’s cabinet members resigned or were not reappointed to her team. In addition to the various challenges facing all Prime Ministers when assembling a cabinet, May also had to reflect the Brexit vote in the make-up of her Cabinet. As such, there were a number of appointments that were made that were clearly not to her natural taste, including Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary and David Davis as Brexit Secretary. However, notably, there was no place in Cabinet for Michael Gove, a colleague that May had a publicly difficult relationship with whilst she was Home Secretary and he was Education Secretary.
Upon becoming Prime Minister May stressed that she would not rush into triggering Article 50 – the formal letter than indicated that Britain had started the countdown to leaving the European Union. She stressed that she wanted a “sensible and orderly departure” from the EU and would not rush into this without detailed plans. However, predictably, immediately upon becoming Prime Minister there was pressure on her to trigger Article 50. Eurosceptic backbenchers in her party called for her to signal her intention by triggering Article 50 quickly. They were worried that any delay would dilute the public appetite for Brexit. However, a constitutional debate was rumbling over whether the Government could even trigger Article 50 without first asking Parliament’s permission. Theresa May did not want to give Parliament a vote on triggering Article 50. She believed that the mandate had already been clearly given to her in the Brexit vote in which 17.4 million people voted to leave the European Union. She foresaw a danger of a prolonged parliamentary debate over Brexit at a time when the British government was preparing for tough negotiations with the EU. However, in November 2016 Gina Miller took the Government to court in Miller vs Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union arguing that only Parliament could authorise the triggering of Article 50. The High Court unanimously ruled in Miller’s favour, much to the derision of the right-wing press.
The Government appealed the decision in the Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the High Court that Parliament must consent to Britain leaving the European Union. This was a blow to Theresa May, as for the first, but certainly not the last time, control over the Brexit agenda was transferred from the Government to Parliament.
On the 26th January 2017 the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) bill was introduced into Parliament. This was enacted on 16th March after it was passed by 494 to 122 in the House of Commons and then passed the House of Lords. This was inevitable, it would have been politically suicidal for Parliament not to trigger Article 50 after 17.4 million people had voted for Brexit in the largest exercise of British democracy there had ever been. However, the debate that accompanied it was damaging, it showed the EU the divisions within the UK Parliament and strengthened their negotiating hand at a time when the Prime Minister needed to appear strong.
Britain formally invoked Article 50 on the 29th March 2017. This began a two-year countdown clock to the date that Britain would formally leave the European Union. With hindsight, this may have been May’s biggest mistake as Prime Minister. Whilst she had appeased the right-wing of her party by triggering Article 50, she had set herself an artificial clock before negotiations with the EU had even begun.
Theresa May’s first clear outline of her Brexit Plan came in her Lancaster House speech of 17th January 2017. Within this speech, she laid out her 12 aims in her Brexit policy. These included:
- Britain would not remain in the Single Market as this would mean that Britain would have to comply with Freedom of Movement, meaning that immigration could not be controlled. In addition, Britain would have to remain under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The Government judged that remaining in the Single Market and under the jurisdiction of the ECJ would not be in keeping with the mandate they were given to ‘leave’ the EU.
- Britain would not be part of the EU Customs Union. The Customs Union is an area within which tariffs cannot be placed on goods. However, being a member of the Customs Union would mean putting in place the same external tariffs as the EU. This would make it difficult for Britain to strike up its own trade deals after Brexit.
- Britain would seek a phased implementation of the new arrangements to ease the transition.
- Britain would not seek to join the European Free Trade Area. This is an extension to the market of the EU, used by countries like Norway. EFTA Members have access to the Single Market granted in exchange for an acceptance of Freedom of Movement. Due to the perceived requirement to have greater control over immigration, this was not something that May could countenance.
- She promised to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The problem May faced, and indeed any PM would have faced, was that some of these points were fundamentally incompatible. This video by CGP Grey brilliantly outlines what he calls the ‘impossible trinity’:
For Theresa May, leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, any dilution of the union was impossible to accept. However, for her eurosceptic backbenchers, any continuance in the single market or a customs union, which would stop Britain being able to independently forge its own trade deals, was impossible to accept. For pro-EU backbenchers, any deal that would remove all links to the EU and threaten its ability to trade with them, could not be accepted. However, seemingly, at least to some extent, one of these impossible options would have to happen to achieve a deal.
In April 2017, Theresa May made a decision that with hindsight she would regret. She announced her plans to hold an early general election in June 2017. She argued her plan was to strengthen Britain’s hand before negotiations with the European Union. Looking at the polls, it was clear why she decided to do this:
The polls all indicated that Theresa May was on course to win a healthy improved majority to the one she had inherited from David Cameron. Unfortunately, her election campaign was a disaster. A number of factors came into play which harmed her campaign:
- Prior to June 2018 May had consistently refused to entertain calling an election. In September 2016 she had said categorically that she would not call a snap election.
- Whilst she sold the snap election to the public as being in the national interest, most people sensed it was a political move to exploit the weakness of Labour on Brexit. That was certainly what Brenda from Bristol thought!
2. Theresa May wasn’t a strong campaigner. Whilst Theresa May had many skills, strong campaigning and personality politics was not among them. Her attempt to appear “strong and stable” was undermined by u-turns on key policies like social care. May made her campaign presidential, but did not have the talent to win over the public in this way.
3. The Conservatives underestimated the strength of Labour’s anti-austerity measures. Whilst Labour did not win the election, they gained 30 seats and were within 2.4% of the Conservative’s overall vote. In an election that no-one won, Labour were definitely not the losers.
4. Theresa May did not attend any of the Leaders Debates. Whilst there are differences of opinion over how useful TV Debates are, they are a Pandora’s Box which was opened in 2010 and cannot now be closed. In a debate on the 1st June 2017 Theresa May was the only party leader (or Westminster Leader) not to show. In her place was Home Secretary Amber Rudd. She was constantly attacked by the opposition for May’s absence. No matter how bad she may have been at debating, not debating at all was even worse.
5. The Conservatives put forward a manifesto that did not chime with the voters. This election was not just about Brexit, instead, social care and pensions became a major policy issue. The governments plan for social care (dubbed the ‘Dementia Tax’) would have seen some people forced to sell their home to provide for care in old age. They also planned to introduce means-testing for the winter fuel and allowance and end the Triple Lock of pensions. For a party whose core support comes from the Over-50s, this was a huge error of judgement.
The result of the election was, however, a disaster for Theresa May. She lost her majority and was forced into a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP. This was tricky for a number of reasons. Firstly, she entered the negotiations with the EU knowing any deal that she made would be harder to get through Parliament than it would have been before the General Election. Secondly, it made her relations with the DUP even more important, all whilst knowing that the issues over Northern Ireland were going to be one of the hardest issues to resolve in the negotiations with the EU.
In July 2017 negotiations formally began with the European Union. However, by the end of 2017, no concrete progress had been made. In March 2018 Theresa May gave a speech at Mansion House in London in which she strongly indicated she would be willing to make significant compromises with the EU in order to make progress, including over issues like fishing rights and the role of the European Court of Justice in arbitrating disputes after Brexit. However, this was not compatible with the views of many of her backbenchers who had campaigned for Brexit so they could “take back control”. Theresa May was now in a seemingly impossible position. She had to moderate her Brexit position in order to have any chance of reaching a deal with the EU. However, by doing so, she was alienating members of her party who ultimately would have to support the deal in order for it to pass. Crucially, May was even struggling to get her own Cabinet on board with her plan.
In July, Theresa May hosted the entirety of her Cabinet for talks at Chequers, the PM’s country residence. They came to an agreement which was named the Chequers Plan. Under this plan:
- The UK would follow a common rulebook for goods – meaning the same standards would be applied in trading in goods as the European Union has. The Government argue that this is a way to keep as seamless a trading relationship as possible with the EU. Importantly, it would be down to Parliament to oversee this and Britain would not be bound by ECJ rulings.
- A joint framework would be established to monitor and interpret UK-EU trading arrangements. This would be done in the UK through UK Courts and through the EU by EU Courts.
- Borders between UK and EU would be treated as a combined customs territory, meaning the UK would charge EU tariffs for any goods that were destined for the EU.
However, for leavers in her cabinet this was too much to bear. Just days after the plan was announced May was stung with high-profile resignations from her Cabinet:
David Davis (Brexit Secretary) – “The Cabinet decision on Friday crystallised this problem. In my view the inevitable consequence of the proposed policies will be to make the supposed control by Parliament illusory rather than real. As I said at Cabinet, the “common rule book” policy hands control of large swathes of our economy to the EU and is certainly not returning control of our laws in any real sense“
Boris Johnson (Foreign Secretary) – “Brexit should be about opportunity and hope. It should be a chance to do things differently, to be more nimble and dynamic, and to maximise the particular advantages of the UK as an open, outward-looking global economy. That dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.“
By the end of 2018, Theresa May had suffered 18 resignations over Brexit, including Dominic Raab, her second Brexit Secretary, who resigned on the 15th November 2018 following the deal reached with the EU.
This draft deal on the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union was signed off by the EU on the 25th November 2018. This deal included a customs union with the EU in order to stop a hard border being put up between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Whilst this maintained the constitutional integrity of the UK, it infuriated Conservative backbenchers who said was Brexit in name only (coined BRINO). Whilst in the customs union, Britain would have to continue to accept EU regulations on goods. This was not acceptable to many.
Such was the anger at the deal that in December the Chairman of the Conservative 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, announced that he had received letters from 15% of Conservative MPs calling for a vote on no confidence in the party leader. Under Conservative Party rules this vote was held on December 12th. Although May won this vote by 200-117, she was forced to confirm she would resign before the next General Election. This made her somewhat of a ‘lame duck’ PM at a time when she needed all the authority she could muster.
In January 2019 the government put its exit deal with the European Union to Parliament for a first ‘meaningful vote’. In October 2016 the government had said they would hold a vote on any Brexit deal it reached with the EU. However, this was as far as their commitment went, this vote might therefore just be advisory. However, during the passage of the EU Withdrawal Act (2018) remainer Conservative MPs led Dominic Grieve inserted an amendment that would ensure that the government could not ratify any withdrawal agreement unless:
- The documents and an associated statement have been published.
- “The negotiated Withdrawal Agreement and the framework for the future relationship have been approved by a resolution of the House of Commons on a motion moved by a minister of the Crown”.
- A subsequent debate has taken place in the House of Lords.
- Parliament has passed legislation to implement the Withdrawal Agreement.
This gave significant power to Parliament at the expense of the government. Under ordinary parliamentary procedure (codified into the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, 2010) Parliament has 21 days to vote against any international treaty. However, the government is not even obligated to hold a vote in these circumstances. However, the pro-remainers in her party had forced May into having to hold a meaningful vote (meaning it could be rejected) in the House of Commons on her exit deal.
The subsequent vote was a disaster for Theresa May. Her deal was rejected by 432 votes to 202, a majority of 230 votes. This was the biggest defeat that any sitting government had ever suffered in the House of Commons. What was most troubling for May, however, was not just the size of the defeat, but also the coalition of votes against the deal – with bit fervent remainers and leavers in her own party rejecting it and also moderates who wanted to find a middle ground:
Bill Cash (strong leaver): “We must fully repeal the European Communities Act 1972 on 29 March, as the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 legislatively requires…However, the withdrawal agreement does not achieve that, despite breathtaking assertions to the contrary. This situation may even be indefinite through the backstop, and through the undemocratic procedures of the Council of Ministers. We could be indefinitely shackled…”
Anna Soubry (strong remainer): “This is a bad deal and we must vote against it. Nobody voted to be poorer. It is also a terrible leap in the dark….We are meant to be the party of business, and it is bad for business, and we are meant to be the party of the future, and it is bad for young people. Let’s all come together and vote against the deal.”
Dr Philip Lee (moderate): “I cannot vote for this withdrawal agreement for many reasons, but this evening I will concentrate on just one: neither this Brexit nor any other practical form of it measures up to what was promised in 2016. The fact is that people voted to leave because they were told that by doing so the country would be richer. They were told about £350 million for the NHS, easy access to the single market and easy, deliverable trade deals with the rest of the world. They were told that there would be less immigration, specifically fewer Muslims, as evidenced by the use of a false position on Turkey in the accession process. Finally, they were told that they would regain sovereignty.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg (strong leaver): “I think there will be a cascade of Members going into the Lobby to vote against this bad deal, because it denies us the opportunities that will make Brexit a success. It takes us further away from the ability to open up our economy to the benefits of free trade and the benefits that would allow the prices of food, clothing and footwear to be reduced, increasing the standard of living, most particularly of the least well-off in society. Instead, we are tied into a protectionist racket that keeps prices high and makes our economy less efficient.”
Dominic Grieve (strong remainer): “… I am respectful of what the Prime Minister has tried to achieve. I accept that it is probably the only deal on offer, realistically, and might be willing to support it, if it had the support of the public. Yet we have spent months trying every possible device in this House to prevent Members from expressing any view saying that the public ought to be consulted. On that, I am afraid I will not budge.”
Following the defeat, the Labour Party called a parliamentary motion of no confidence in May’s Government the very next day. Predictably, this went along party lines and May survived by 325 to 306. However, had it not been for the confidence and supply agreement with the DUP (who had all voted against her Brexit Deal the previous day), she could conceivably have lost by one vote (316-315), just as James Callaghan had done in 2019.
Importantly, in her address to Parliament following the surviving the vote, May talked about the importance of parties working together to find a solution. She invited party leaders and senior parliamentarians to meet with her individually. Crucially, since her start as PM, this was not something she had actively sought to do.
Theresa May then returned to Brussels for further negotiations and particularly with the aim of finding a solution to the controversial “Northern Irish backstop”. This had been a reason that many MPs had cited when voting against the deal. The backstop was a proposed solution to the Northern Irish issue put forward by the EU. The backstop would see Northern Ireland remain inside the EU Single Market until a trade deal was reached between both the UK and EU. However, this would see the economic rules of Northern Ireland being different from that of the UK and see the EU having continued influence on the rules and regulations of the economy of Northern Ireland.
On March 12th a second meaningful vote was held. Before this vote, the Government hoped they would be able to advise that the revised deal would mean the UK could unilaterally cancel the backstop if they wanted. However, the government was not able to give this assurance to Parliament. The Government lost this vote by 391-242, a majority of 149 votes. This was another crushing defeat. Importantly, the clock that Theresa May had set in 2017 now came back to haunt her. As it stood, Britain would leave the EU with no-deal on the 29th March 2019. The day after the second meaningful vote Parliament passed a motion against leaving the EU without a deal. They also required the Prime Minister to seek an extension from the EU. Whilst Theresa May had once claimed that “no deal was better than a bad deal” it was clear this was never a risk she was willing to take (as Johnson would do in 2020) – a no-deal Brexit would be disastrous for the UK economy. The EU offered an extension until April 12th.
Following this, Parliament took the decision to hold indicative votes on all the different Brexit options. None reached a majority in the House of Commons:
On March 29th, a third meaningful vote took place in the House of Commons. This fell short by 59 votes, with 34 Conservatives voting against. In this vote, May had managed to win over some remainers (perhaps with the looming threat of no deal which the EU could have enforced on the UK), but those that believed the deal was BRINO, like Bill Cash and Christopher Chope, held out to vote no.
On April 11th, May requested a further extension from the EU. The EU granted this extension until October 31st. In May, Britain took part in the EU elections as it remained in the EU. This was extraordinarily embarrassing for the British Government. The European Elections played out like a mini-referendum on Brexit. The Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats, who epitomized the huge range of policy on Brexit, finished first and second. The day after the European Elections, which were disastrous for the Conservatives, Theresa May emotionally announced she would resign as Conservative Leader and step down as Prime Minister when the Conservative Party had found a new leader.
Despite her many critics, it is very hard to find people who doubt Theresa May’s sense of duty or her work ethic. She undoubtedly worked very hard for two years to piece things together, but still could not do it. Famously, when Harold MacMillan was asked what was most likely to bring down a government he reportedly replied “events dear boy, events”. The events that MacMillan was alluding to were those that could not be predicted and blindsided a government, thereby sidelining their agenda. For Theresa May the event that wholly dominated her agenda was Brexit. She knew the task at hand before becoming Prime Minister, but was still willing to take it on. Due to Brexit, however, she was unable to seriously push through any of her other priorities. Between 2017 and 2019 only 52 Government Bills were passed. Of these, five were directly related to Brexit and many were Finance Acts (Budgets) and Acts to directly govern Northern Ireland due to the breakdown of power-sharing there. She was not able to carry out a normal legislative agenda as the government was hamstrung by uncertainty over Brexit. This meant that issues that she cared about, like a new Domestic Abuse Bill, did not make it through parliament during her premiership.
So why is Theresa May a good example of a PM hindered by a lack of control?
- Events – Theresa May’s premiership was entirely dominated by Brexit. This issue was not of her creation, but she was left to try to solve it. Any PM who had taken office when she did would have been left in an unenviable position and it is difficult to see that any alternative figure may have fared much better.
2. Party – Brexit had left the Conservative Party deeply divided on the most important issue she faced. There are always some divisions within parties on key issues. However, these are usually minor and reconcilable. On Brexit, arguably the biggest political issue since 1945, there Conservative Party looked more like three different parties:
Hard Brexiteers – Long-term Europsceptics like Christopher Chope and William Cash wanted a complete break from the EU and the freedom of action this would subsequently allow. They would not countenance any compromise that would mean Britain was not ‘taking back control’.
Soft Brexiteers – Members who did not want Brexit but now accepted that it had to happen. These include MPs like Philip Lee who would vote for a bill that was good enough for this constituents.
Remainers – Members who vigorously campaigned against Brexit. These members doubted that what was on offer on the ballot paper in 2016 did justice to the complexity of the issue. Many, like Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston argued that any deal must be ratified by the British public through a ‘People’s Vote’.
When it came to the crunch moment of the first meaningful vote in 2019, May faced rebellions from these three major groups within her own party. This is unheard of in modern political history. Interestingly, when faced with similar problems in 2019, Boris Johnson purged his party of many remainers by removing the whip from those who voted against his Brexit agenda.
3. Government – Because of the nature of Brexit, Theresa May had to include members within her cabinet that she would not ordinarily have appointed. These Cabinet Members were never truly onside and collective responsibility was hard to maintain. Some members, like Boris Johnson, were already pushing the boundaries of collective responsibility before finally resigning. For example, whilst Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had retained his column in the Daily Telegraph which he had used to question government Brexit policy. It always felt inevitable that a cascade of damaging resignations would come at some point.
4. Parliament – As a result of the unique situation that Brexit created, Parliament acted more independently that it would do normally. It took control of the agenda, contrary to usual conventions, when it did not feel the Government was acting in the national interest. On 4th December 2018 Parliament even found the government in ‘contempt of Parliament’ for the first time in history. This was due to a failure of the government to publish legal advice about Brexit that Parliament felt entitled to see. The proactive nature of Parliament over Brexit proceedings hindered May’s ability to remain in control.
5. Judiciary – The Supreme Court in Miller v Secretary of State ruled that Parliament had to consult Parliament before invoking Article 50. This slowed down Brexit for Theresa May, but also weakened her negotiating position in the eyes of the EU. Miller vs Brexit was one of the most significant decisions ever made by the Supreme Court and undoubtedly was a political decision, even if that is something the Supreme Court sought to avoid the appearance of.
On reflection, there are undoubtedly many things Theresa May may have done differently. For example, she could have held off triggering Article 50 until Parliament had agreed on an exit strategy. This required some political courage, but it could have been done. To achieve this, she could have reached out to other parties as the starting point, not the necessary action following defeats on her deal. Undoubtedly, May would also want the conduct the 2017 election campaign differently. However, the decision to hold the election, based on the data, was probably the right one politically.
Frustratingly for Theresa May, many parliamentarians and commentators believe that Boris Johnson’s Brexit Deal was in fact inferior to hers. What allowed his deal to pass was his increased majority and the fact that he had run the clock down, forcing even the Labour Party to vote for it or risk a catastrophic no-deal Brexit. Theresa May made reference to this when she spoke in the House of Commons to confirm she would vote for Boris Johnson’s deal:
Despite being ranked as the joint worst post-war Prime Minister it is hard to see how anyone else in her position would have fared much better. Irregardless, pretty much the entirety of Theresa May’s premiership is a case study in one in which the PM has a lack of control.