Theresa May has become the latest Conservative prime minister to be brought down by party divisions on Europe. Speaking outside 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister gave a statement in which she confirmed that she will step down on June 7 to pave the way for a leadership contest to find her successor the following week. She admitted that her Brexit strategy had failed – having tried to pass her deal three times – and said this was something she deeply regretted. However, she suggested that she did not regret her approach – stating that ‘compromise is not a dirty word’. At the end of the speech, May had a rare show of emotion as she declared that it had been an honour to ‘serve the country I love’:
‘I will shortly leave the job that has been the honour of my life to hold. I do so with no ill will but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.’
A large part of the speech was dedicated to setting out what May hopes her legacy will be – outside of Europe. With her premiership cut shorter than she would have liked, May tried to outline the things that she would like to be remembered for – rather than the fact she failed to deliver Brexit: ‘A call to make the United Kingdom a country that truly works for everyone. I am proud of the progress we have made over the last three years.’
May revisited her beleaguered Burning Injustices agenda – the one she outlined in one of her first speeches on the steps of Downing Street: ‘The unique privilege of this office is to use this platform to give a voice to the voiceless, to fight the burning injustices that still scar our society.’ She highlighted the NHS funding settlement her government had announced, her work on the Race Disparity Audit and a recent move to end ‘the postcode lottery for survivors of domestic abuse’.
The reaction so far in the Tory party has been one of respect and sadness – though many of these ministers and MPs personally called for her to go prior to the speech. The truth is that no matter what May achieved on domestic policy (and there’s a debate to be had on whether she achieved much), she will be remembered as a Prime Minister brought down by a failure to deliver Brexit. It’s not the legacy that she had wanted – and one she had fought hard to try and avoid.