Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Theresa May's legacy overshadowed by shambles of Brexit ... at least she didn't start a war

 

Theresa May returns to 10 Downing Street after announcing her resignation as Prime Minister
Theresa May returns to 10 Downing Street after announcing her resignation as Prime Minister
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

This newspaper doesn't always make it easy for columnists. "A thousand words on Theresa May's achievements as Prime Minister please". I've not struggled with the upper word limit.

She didn't sign a peace deal with Hitler, launch a Suez operation or, er, call a referendum on EU membership, so those thinking Theresa May is one of our worst-ever prime ministers need to retake A-level history.

Yet premierships ought to be about more than the avoidance of total disaster. Is there a May legacy?

There is sympathy, for sure. Mrs May had the most difficult in-tray of any non-wartime prime minster, presiding over a party, parliament and country torn asunder by Brexit. As her predecessor slunk away without even an apology for the wreckage he left, Theresa May tried to steer a course which respected the referendum result, delivered Brexit and managed the UK-Ireland border.

Laudably, Mrs May was one of very few Conservatives during the referendum campaign who highlighted the risk of inflammation of the border issue. The backstop was the culmination of valiant efforts to keep the border silent and seamless.

It was an idea well-received by many in Northern Ireland. It's just that 99.5% of the population here don't vote Conservative.

Under the radar, May's government made economic progress. A record number of people are in employment. Average earnings saw their biggest increase in a decade in the final year of her tenure. Borrowing has been reduced significantly, with the annual spending deficit down by £4bn in the last financial year. The national debt reduced by £22bn whilst Theresa May held office.

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These achievements have been grossly overshadowed by the chaos of Brexit, yet you could make a case that this government has been one of the most fiscally prudent of modern times.

A revisionist view of Mrs May might claim that delaying Brexit bought her country more time to at least prepare for the potential shocks of a no-deal departure. It was the Leader of the Opposition who, extraordinarily, called for the immediate triggering of Article 50 after the referendum result. And May was dealing with all sorts of gung-ho rashness on her own side.

But there is much in the debit column. The repeated denials that there would be a snap election were followed by the most horribly botched campaign in memory. May alienated the public, who at least trusted her until the election U-turn.

The confidence of her depleted parliamentary party collapsed quicker than a Stormont Executive.

To describe May as wooden on the campaign trail is unfair. At least wood's properties change over time. "Strong and stable" soon became "so long - you're incapable".

May had got away with her lack of dexterity at the Home Office, where inflexible policies and rigidity sometimes played well among voters but stored up later problems (see the Windrush saga for starters). As PM, some of her appointments were woeful.

The rate of turnover set a record, 50 ministers resigning during her tenure.

Bereft of allies, May was rescued by the DUP but underestimated that party's belligerence. The Prime Minister somehow believed that she would get away with alienating her new friends.

Informed by the DUP leadership of the unacceptability of her draft deal with the EU in December 2017, May somehow believed that what was rejected then was re-sellable less than a year later.

Amid noise, drug revelations and miracle tax cuts so far, the contest for Theresa May's successor appears a triumph of ambition over ideas.

Those candidates avowedly prepared to countenance a no-deal departure - we'll see - need to be clear as to what customs operation would be mounted on the UK side of the border. Telling the EU if it wants to protect the integrity of its single market then it can build a hard border might offer visceral satisfaction to some. But blind eyes, light touches and technological aspiration do not amount to UK customs responsibilities compliant even with World Trade Organisation rules.

To differing degrees, almost all leadership contenders are on the same page as the DUP. Michael Gove, Mark Harper, Jeremy Hunt, Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey and Dominic Raab all believe that the threat of leaving without a deal will make the other 27 EU member states drop the backstop.

Remarkably, Michael Gove claimed at the weekend that he had "worked hard in Northern Ireland and the Republic to bring the people together". By opposing the Good Friday Agreement and now the backstop?

Matt Hancock wants the backstop time-limited and Sajid Javvid wants to throw cash at the Irish government to "digitise" the border. So that's nine anti-permanent backstop candidates. Only Rory Stewart appeared to genuinely like Theresa May's deal and might still accept a backstop - anything but a no-deal for him.

These contenders back the DUP's opposition to any unique alignment of Northern Ireland to EU regulations. So any might be acceptable to the DUP as next Prime Minister. That said, the DUP's likeliest preferred PMs are either Boris Johnson - the most vocal about binning the backstop - or Michael Gove, whose unionism is the equal of his conservatism.

The only, ever-so-slight, problem for the backstop opponents is the complete absence of any evidence that the EU is prepared to abandon its idea. But why let reality rudely intrude upon the fun of nightly Conservative parliamentary party votes and then a party membership ballot?

Johnson appears to be doing better among MPs than originally envisaged. He ought to win if surviving to the members' ballot, but the record of favourites in Conservative leadership contests is even worse than those in the Grand National to which this battle has been compared.

Meanwhile, Mrs May remains Prime Minister until late July. So perhaps there's still time for some late achievements and a deeper reflection on the fruits of her office. Neither of the Conservatives' women leaders was ousted by the voters. Instead both were forced out by their own MPs, mostly men and some with bigger egos than abilities. Unlike Thatcher though, I doubt I'll prepare many lectures on 'May-ism'. And I know for sure I can't stretch her achievements article to any more words.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

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