LONDON—Well, at last, it's happened.
The woman who became prime minister by default, who gave herself one job in office and repeatedly failed to deliver, has finally accepted that she is no longer wanted. After spending three years lurching from one disaster to another—slowly but surely losing the support of Parliament, her party, and the public as she tried to take Britain out of the European Union—Theresa May paid the price of failure.
In front of 10 Downing Street on a sunny Friday morning in London, May’s voice cracked as she announced she will resign as leader of the Conservative Party on June 7, allowing her to remain prime minister for Donald Trump's upcoming state visit. She will stay in office while a new party leader is chosen, and it's expected there will be a new prime minister by the end of July.
May will leave no lasting legacy. The sole purpose of her leadership was to win domestic support for a deal with the European Union that would allow Britain to leave the bloc in a relatively painless manner. The deal was resoundingly rejected three times and her only answer was to try to get lawmakers to vote on it yet again, with minor tweaks. Her most important supporters, finally sick of living in Groundhog Day, decided enough was enough.
One minister, summing up her three years of leadership, told The Daily Beast: “She fucked up, then she fucked off.”
Her cabinet's fury with her came after she dangled the prospect of a second referendum in front of lawmakers in the hope that it would win over some people to her deal. The result? Furious backers of Brexit saw their dream slipping away and withdrew their support, while pro-European lawmakers had no intention of backing the deal anyway.
It was the kind of political miscalculation, which even casual observers of British politics could see coming from a mile off, that has pockmarked May's time as prime minister. The first was calling a general election in 2017 after she inherited David Cameron's majority when he resigned following the Brexit referendum. She went on to lose her majority, making the task ahead of her a hundred times more difficult. The first of many self-inflicted wounds.
From then on, with diminished ranks of lawmakers to rely on for support, she was left beholden to her party as Brexit was shaped. She was forced to accommodate the extreme anti-E.U. cranks of her party while still hoping for the support of those who campaigned to Remain. The end result was a failed deal, and a failed premiership.
“I think [her leadership] will end in ignominy, only because she is no longer in control,” one pro-Brexit minister told The Daily Beast ahead of her resignation. “She lost control much earlier than any of us truly recognized.”
Her leadership style had been roundly criticized ever since she called that absolute failure of a general election in 2017. Mocked as overly robotic for relying on a checklist of about three catchphrases during the campaign, and using one of them in answer to almost every question she was asked, serious doubts emerged about whether she had the personality to lead.
Throughout her premiership, she has relied on the advice of a minuscule group of advisers and the support of her husband. Ministers and opposition figures have complained that, while she sometimes gives the impression of being a conciliatory leader who listens to lots of different people for advice, it's incredibly rare for any of it to actually be taken on board.
“She is a listener. Well, let’s rephrase that. She listens,” one minister told The Daily Beast. “You get the impression in the moment that what has been said has been noted—but it’s never clear what that notation actually means.”
The source of her failure as a leader appears to stem from two serious issues: a distinct lack of trust for anyone outside of her very small inner circle, and a highly introverted personality.
That's not to say the lack of trust was entirely unfounded, especially once her authority began to ebb away. One member of the government told The Daily Beast of being on conference calls with the prime minister and, in real time, watching tweets of what had just been said on the call appearing on their timeline. “It can’t have been easy, though you can of course ask how it managed to get to that stage.”
As for her personality, someone who has worked with May for nearly two decades in her local constituency told The Daily Beast that she just isn't very good at talking to people. Richard Kellaway, chairman of May's local Maidenhead Conservative Association, described her as a determined and impressive politician—but one who is impossible to get to know.
“I think it’s fair to say she is relatively introverted, which is unusual as a politician,” said Kellaway. “But quite a lot of actors are like that, they just perform on stage and she does do that. It’s fair to say she doesn’t have a great range of small talk. We tend to talk about serious things with her and ask her questions on serious matters. She’s not clubbable, and she has a small circle of friends.”
From Kellaway's account, it’s clear May was much more suited to local work and sorting out small, regional problems than she ever was to steering Britain through the immense complexity of Brexit. Local members were “mildly surprised” when she became Home Secretary in 2010, and shocked when she emerged as prime minister in the wake of Brexit.
“But she's been an amazingly hard-working member of parliament,” added Kellaway. “Even now she canvasses twice a month—she continues to visit people and see what’s going on. It’s quite funny going around with her now being she’s going around with heavily armed policemen, but she does it.”
Many observers have noted that it's May's sense of duty that has seen her stumble on, like Monty Python's Black Knight, through setback after setback over the past three years. She'll most likely remain on as a local member of parliament while someone else tries to do what she couldn't in finding some kind of acceptable resolution to the Brexit debacle.
“Theresa May, like a Duracell bunny, kept going,” a minister said. “Irrespective of the challenges she’s faced, she’s been focussed on delivering her deal and for all the criticism she’s had, that deal was signed off by 27 member states, and remains the only deal we’ve got.”
For now, that remains true, and it's unclear who will replace her or how their approach to Brexit will differ. Shakespearean oddball Boris Johnson has long been after her job and is backed by large swathes of party members. If May's arch rival takes the crown, it seems certain her deal—all that she's worked on for three years—will be tossed aside.
With her premiership over, and with a vanishingly small chance of her deal ever becoming law, it's hard to pick out any form of positive legacy for May other than saying “you tried your best.” If you were being kind, you could also point out that she did quite a funny and mildly endearing dance before her Conservative conference speech last year.
It's true that she ruled under incredibly difficult circumstances, picking up from the unprecedented mess Cameron didn't want to deal with. But self-inflicted wound after self-inflicted wound made those circumstances far worse than they had to be, and have all led to her project's failure.
Do those close to her think she regrets putting herself forward? “Absolutely not,” said Kellaway. “I don’t think she’s had any second thoughts. It’s an amazing achievement to be prime minister and she's very proud of that.”
It's a relief that she’s glad she took up the role. Someone has to be.