Margaret Thatcher set a high bar for any female successor. That said why will Theresa May leave office next week with such bad reviews? She lost more ministers through resignation (35) than Thatcher and Tony Blair did in 10 years. Cabinet discipline completely collapsed. She called an election and lost her majority. Above all she failed in her central project of leaving the EU with a deal.
I think she deserves some slack actually. David Cameron walked away having created the biggest crisis for the UK since 1940. Holding a referendum was a mistake, making no preparations for the eventuality of a Leave vote was grossly negligent. It was an inheritance that needed the political craft of Harold Wilson and the flair of Tony Blair. Mrs May had neither.
It is a bit of a mystery how this shy woman with an awkward manner rose to the top job. It actually came about when potentially better candidates fell out or withdrew. Perhaps Andrea Leadsom would have made a better fist of it. The ability to create a team spirit in the Cabinet, to work the tearoom with Tory backbenchers and communicate an overall vision to the country was lacking. This was particularly serious at a time of unprecedented division in the nation and parliament. It is because of the behaviour of Tory MPs in the Commons that I cut her some slack. I always thought that eventually the European Research Group would compromise on their extreme Brexit demands. It was the problem John Major faced in the 1990’s with many of the same anti EU obsessives like Bill Cash. Her foolish opportunism in calling the 2017 election and losing her majority plaid into the ERG’s hands but their undermining of the Prime Minister was on an epic scale.
On the positive side she did have a functioning relationship with her Chancellor, something that eluded Tony Blair. Philip Hammond presided over a strengthening economy and, although announcements about the end of austerity are premature for millions on low pay, £20bn for the NHS and low unemployment rates are achievements of the May Premiership.
Ultimately though people will ask what her three years in office achieved. Brexit wasn’t delivered but nor was much else. There was parliamentary time to tackle the huge issue of elderly care which has nothing to do with Brexit.
In her final speech she spoke of the dangers of absolutism entering politics, an unwillingness to compromise and a coarsening of the political debate. The scales have finally fallen from Mrs May’s eyes. The first year of her Premiership was dominated by her fixing red lines on her EU negotiations and hiring a Pretorian guard in No 10. For a long time she seemed to disregard the 48% of us who voted to Remain, giving top priority to trying to keep her party together.
What will she do on the backbenches? She at least won’t be resigning her seat in the disdainful way Cameron quit Witney. She could link up with several her other ministers about to be discarded by Johnson (if elected) in opposing No Deal. She may stay neutral offering him far more loyalty than he offered to her.
Whatever happens Theresa May will have more time to walk through the cornfields where she will be a great deal happier than she was in office.