Case Study Theresa May

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 conference. 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.

When she beacme PM her new, ardent Brexiteer persona won her support on her own backbenches and in the Brexit-supporting media. The Daily Mail, an anti-EU newspaper, declared that May would “crush the saboteurs” who sought to frustrate Brexit. 

Within 48 hours of replacing David Cameron as prime minister in July 2016, Theresa May had carried out one of the most brutal culls in modern UK political history. Nine members of Cameron’s top team where sacked or chose to resign either for personal reasons or because they were unwilling to accept the job they were offered. A further eight were retained but were moved to other posts. This left just four members of Cameron’s cabinet who kept their old jobs – Michael Fallon (defence secretary), Jeremy Hunt (health secretary), David Mundell (Scottish secretary) and Alun Cairns (Welsh secretary). No fewer than 12 members of May’s new team had had no previous cabinet experience. Most incoming prime ministers who, like May, are appointed without having won an election, and so without having gained a mandate of their own, tend to emphasise stability and continuity when forming their first cabinet. May very clearly departed from this trend, for two reasons. 

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. 

Where did it all go wrong? 

The Election of 2017 

In June 2017, despite having made little progress on Brexit plans, May held a snap election, convinced she could increase her parliamentary majority of 13 to something north of 100. A result like that would have given May an unassailable position from which to push through her Brexit strategy.

Her plan backfired. A limp election campaign in which May seldom appeared in public – and seemed hellbent on avoiding any members of it – made her look out of touch and power-hungry.

The opposition Labour Party took advantage. It managed to position itself not only as the more pro-Europe option, but its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seemed more human. The Conservatives emerged as the largest party in Parliament, but May was stripped of her working majority.

Fire that ripped through Grenfell Tower in London left 72 people dead and a community shattered. May’s response was widely criticized. She visited the site, but didn’t meet with any of the survivors. It made her look cold and unsympathetic. While no one seeks to use a disaster like this for political gain, May’s woes were compounded by images of Corbyn hugging survivors. 

First, despite having, in 2015, won the first Conservative Commons majority since 1992, Cameron was associated with a style of government (‘chumocracy’) and a modernising agenda that had attracted deep criticism from certain parts of the Conservative Party. This provided May with the opportunity to break openly with her predecessor’s legacy and, in the process, to establish her own authority. The highest profile casualties of the reshuffle were therefore the ministers who had been closest to Cameron – George Osborne, Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove, Oliver Letwin  – while those promoted were often either independent figures such as Philip Hammond (chancellor of the exchequer) or people on whose loyalty May could count, such as Amber Rudd (home secretary), Liz Truss (education secretary) and Justine Greening (justice secretary). 

Second, May was forced to construct a cabinet clearly committed to delivering Brexit, especially as she herself was a ‘Remainer’, albeit a reluctant one. The number of ‘Brexiters’ in the cabinet increased from four to seven, but May’s crucial move was to appoint high-profile Brexiteers to the three posts most closely linked to the process of EU withdrawal – Boris Johnson (foreign secretary), Liam Fox (international trade secretary) and David Davis (Brexit secretary). Although this created the danger that the prime minister would lose control in this most vital and controversial policy area, May emphasised her strategic leadership of the Brexit process and ensured that she chaired the cabinet committee on Brexit and international trade. 

May's chiefs of staff Theresa May's joint chiefs of staff, were seen as powerful gate keepers who persuaded her to go for an early election. Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy are intensely loyal, after years advising her as home secretary, before spells in think tanks and public affairs.

Ultimately it was her failure to deliver Brexit which brought her down

The failure to carry a divided House of Commons with her resulted in a deal being agreed that parliament came to detest. And that’s why, every time it was put to a vote, it failed. As the Brexit endgame drew closer, she was visibly losing the support of her Cabinet. After a meeting at the Prime Minister’s country retreat, Chequers, in which she outlined the latest Brexit policy position, she lost two important ministers. Boris Johnson, her Foreign Secretary and the most prominent Conservative Brexiteer, and David Davis, her Brexit Secretary, decided they’d had enough. (Example of Collective Responsibility )

May's controversial draft withdrawal agreement received widespread criticism and at least 23 Conservative MPs proceeded to submit a letter demanding a vote of no confidence (a total of 48 letters from MPs were needed to trigger one).In addition to this, four ministers, including cabinet members Esther McVey and Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, resigned over the deal. However, a poll of 505 Conservative councillors found that a majority wanted MPs to back the prime minister, although more were against the deal than for it.

Example of Parliament's  ability to check the executive

On 4 December 2018, the May government was found in contempt of Parliament – the first government to be found in contempt in history – on a motion passed by MPs by 311 to 293 votes. The vote was triggered by the government failing to lay before Parliament any legal advice on the proposed withdrawal agreement on the terms of the UK's departure from the European Union, after a humble address for a return was unanimously agreed to by the House of Commons on 13 November 2018. The government then agreed to publish the full legal advice for Brexit that was given to the prime minister by the attorney general during negotiations with the European Union.

In the 23 May European Parliament election, the Conservative Party lost 15 seats in the European Parliament (placing them fifth, behind the Brexit Party, Liberal Democrats, Labour Party and Green Party), achieved a 9% vote share, and nursed what many called the worst nationwide election result in their 185-year history.[ The next day, May announced that she would resign as leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party effective 7 June 2019, remaining leader for Donald Trump's state visit. She stated, "it is now clear to me that it is in the best interests of the country for a new prime minister to lead that effort [Brexit] 

The Windrush Scandal 

Her “hostile environment” policy had created legislation which required immigrants to prove their status by providing paperwork when trying to do everyday things like renting an apartment or taking a job. Unintentionally, this hit a generation of immigrants from the Caribbean, who came to the UK in the post-war years to make up for a shortage in the workforce. Many of them were without paperwork and suddenly faced the threat of deportation, despite having lived in the country for decades.

Public outrage once again made May look out of touch and unsympathetic.