Thanks to Brexit, Theresa May had one of shortest tenures as PM
Theresa May became the prime minister in 2016 with the defining promise of delivering Brexit, but as she leaves office on Wednesday, it was the multi-level challenge spawned by Brexit that ended what turns out to be one of the shortest tenures in 10, Downing Street, since 1900.
May’s tenure (2016-19) lasted 1,106 days, little more than that of Gordon Brown (2007-10; 1,049 days) and Neville Chamberlain (1937-40; 1,078 days). It literally ended in tears, as May broke down, announcing her exit outside the famous door on May 24.
Her emotional performance on the day reminded many of Enoch Powell’s famous quote: “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”.
Two of May’s oft-repeated phrases that were supposed to help her politically turned out to be an embarrassment: ‘Brexit means Brexit’ (in the early days of her tenure) and ‘strong and stable’ (during the 2017 election campaign). They were less heard as the Brexit pitch in Brussels and Westminster showed an unpredictable turn.
In fact, May’s love of cricket was often mentioned in the seemingly endless debates in the House of Commons during her tenure. She was called an ‘ice maiden’ and ‘Maybot’ due to her robot-like responses inside and outside parliament, but one of the more interesting facets of her personality has been her love of cricket.
May’s hero is Geoffrey Boycott, the redoubtable Yorkshireman who in his prime was the scourge of many due to his dour plodding at the crease. He and his qualities were often mentioned when May was questioned inside and outside parliament about her ability to deliver Brexit. Just like Boycott, she insisted, she would stick to it and “get the runs in the end.”
If the defining theme of her prime ministership has been Brexit, her predecesssor David Cameron’s legacy is falling on his sword by calling the 2016 referendum and then resigning as prime minister after it threw up the vote to leave the European Union (his government campaigned to remain).
May will be remembered for her Boycott-like doggedness in pursuing her version of Brexit, but not “getting the runs” in the end. It was Brexit that sucked all the attention in Whitehall and Westminster, and three years on, there is little sign of it being resolved to the satisfaction of all.
May attracted most of the blame for the impasse due to her uncompromising red lines, as over 35 ministers resigned during her prime ministership. She called the 2017 mid-term election, hoping to win a bigger majority than the 2015 one to push through Brexit, but presided over the Conservative party losing its majority.
As history tells us, Tory grandees never forgive leaders who do not deliver majority in elections. It was a matter of time before the grey suits went up to her and offered her the option of either resigning or facing the ignominy of being removed. Losing several Brexit motions in parliament hastened the process.
May remained preoccupied with Brexit, but made some gestures towards India. Her first visit abroad as prime minister was to India in November 2016. Her charm offensive during the visit included a visit to the Someshwara Temple in Bengaluru in a sari, but the abiding takeaway was negative due to concerns around immigration.
During the visit, amid persistent questions over visa curbs, she declared she would “consider further improvements to our visa offer if at the same time we can step up the speed and volume of returns of Indians with no right to remain in the UK”. The issue of illegal Indians in the UK – whose number is a matter of debate between London and New Delhi – remains one of the major outstanding issues in bilateral relations.
May did not engage much in parliamentary debates on Indian issues but as the home secretary (2010-2016) she had much impact on India in the area of immigration. In April 2012, she closed the post-study work visa, which was popular among self-financing Indian students, and which is one of the key reasons for a major drop in the number of Indian students coming to British universities since. As prime minister, she also consistently resisted pressure from cabinet colleagues, universities and others to ease curbs on student visas, which reinforced her image of being tough on immigration.
To what extent her successor, Boris Johnson, is able to roll back some of May’s immigration curbs remains to be seen, but Brexit will continue to focus most attention in the near future. Brexit has already consumed two prime ministers (Cameron, May); how Johnson navigates the minefield will determine whether his colourful political career survives it.