Three years after voters in the UK mandated their government to take Britain out of the European Union, Theresa May’s failure to do so has finally caught up with her.
“I have done my best,” she said in an emotional statement on the steps of Downing Street. But as she admitted, it wasn’t enough.
It always seems to end like this for leaders of May’s Conservative Party, divided for years over Britain’s relationship with the European Union. Her predecessor, David Cameron, quit the morning after 52% of the UK voted to leave the EU, having presided over his own political miscalculation.
Under her leadership, the Conservative Party has gone from being seen as the natural party of government to the exploding clown car of politics. Worse than being unable to govern, the Conservative’s mishandling of Brexit has led to the public humiliation of the UK’s oldest and most successful political organization, suffering electoral losses to a rival party that didn’t exist six weeks ago.
May had previously said that she would stand down if her deal was approved, letting someone else take control of the next stage of Brexit. It turns out that top-to-bottom rejection of her deal and her leadership from pretty much everyone involved in politics would also do the trick.
May’s legacy will be defined by failures, public humiliations and catastrophic political miscalculations. Some of these were out of her hands. Some were the result of poor advice from those she chose to surround herself with. Some were because of the unprecedented political crisis that would come to dominate her time in Downing Street.
But much of it was her own fault. Many of her decisions had a directly negative impact on her ability to lead. The problem for May wasn’t just that British politics has been deadlocked for the best part of three years, but that she repeatedly engineered ways to erode her own authority.
By the time she accepted her number was up, she had lost the confidence of MPs, members of her own party and even her own Cabinet.
Before taking the job, May had long been tipped for high office. In 2002, while serving as chair of the Conservative Party, May addressed the faithful at their annual party onference. At the time, the Conservatives had been out of power for five years. Tony Blair had successfully won over some traditional conservative voters and the party had an image problem. This also meant it had an electoral problem: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us — the nasty party,” May said.
The speech went down a storm and paved the way for a new era. In 2005, the party would elect David Cameron as leader. Cameron knew the importance of May’s support, so made her a close ally and, along with other Tory moderates, oversaw a sweeping modernization of the party. It would come to be a party that believed in helping communities, the “Big Society”, and would eventually be the party that legalized same-sex marriage in the UK.
Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010, albeit as leader of a coalition government with the center-left Liberal Democrats. Again, knowing May’s importance and her appeal to the more conservative members of the party’s base, he made her Home Secretary.
May was always considered one of the toughest members of Cameron’s Cabinet. As Home Secretary, she accused the Police Federation — the association that represents rank-and-file police officers in the UK — of “crying wolf” over budget cuts. She presided over a policy of creating a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants. She even took on the EU on matters ranging from immigration to the deportation of high-profile terrorists. She was a force to be reckoned with and seen as one of the cornerstones of conservatism in a coalition compromised by liberals.
It was a shock to some when in 2016, May announced that she would be backing David Cameron’s Remain campaign. But her decision to do so, it turned out, was a masterstroke in triangulation. When Cameron resigned in the wake of the result of the Brexit referendum, May was seen as a safe pair of hands. She backed Remain, but her track record in the Home Office meant she was tough enough to stand up to the EU. She was the best candidate to unite two sides of the Conservative Party that voted for different things.
At least, that was the theory.