Theresa May isn’t leaving at a time of her choosing, nor has she been able to focus on the domestic policies she listed in her inaugural speech on the steps of Downing Street. But today, as she announced she was resigning, she still tried to set out what she believed was her legacy in tackling the ‘burning injustices’ in Britain.
It wasn’t a long list, and the achievements on that list were in themselves rather small. She said she had committed more funding to mental health in the NHS long-term plan, which is true. This funding increase was greater than those in NHS England had initially hoped for. But there is such a dearth in provision at the moment, with shortages of acute beds, access to therapy and insufficient doctors and nurses in psychiatry that it will be a long time before those needing mental health care on the NHS really notice any difference. It is unlikely that they will attribute this to Theresa May.
May then pointed to a recent announcement, which was ending the ‘postcode lottery’ for victims of domestic abuse. This is part of the government’s domestic abuse bill, which is currently only in draft form. The outgoing Prime Minister’s commitment to tackling domestic abuse had impressed campaigners in a sector used to being misunderstood and overlooked, but she was never able to find enough bandwidth to get all of her proposed reforms onto the statute books. It would be difficult for a new government to drop the plans, but it will remain easy for whoever takes over to proceed at the same glacial pace as May has.
On the environment and tackling climate change, the Conservatives have arguably made the most progress and attracted the most positive press, but this is largely because the Environment Secretary Michael Gove was left to it by Theresa May, and because he has a knack for achieving things and getting the press attention for those achievements that the Prime Minister has never developed.
May also named the race disparity audit, housebuilding and the modern industrial strategy as policies she would be remembered for. But she will more likely be remembered for what she did not do: she promised to reform social care, then made a mess of it in the 2017 snap election, before kicking any plans into the long grass. Even this week, she was insisting that the Tories would soon be bringing forward plans on social care, but now the sector, which has long been in crisis, has to wait once again for a new prime minister to have the courage and ability to put it on a sustainable footing.
The social care disaster created one of the most memorable lines of May’s premiership: ‘nothing has changed’. From early on, her ministers complained that they were unable to get any proposal out of her intray, suffering repeated requests for more detail, and mysterious delays in responding. She was famed as a micromanager at the Home Office, and tried to maintain this approach when in Number 10, which is impossible given the size of Whitehall. She trusted very few people, and was highly resistant to change. When she did develop policy, it tended to be within her own coterie of Downing Street advisers, rather than with the ministers and aides who knew the sector best.
May had the correct diagnosis of many of Britain’s problems in a way that David Cameron hadn’t. But she wasn’t able to respond to those problems in a memorable way, and not just because of Brexit. A combination of her lack of bandwidth for anything other than getting Britain out of the EU and her inability to make decisions means that her domestic legacy is probably best characterised as ‘nothing much has changed’.