Many years in the future, Theresa May (assuming she’s gone by then) may well be remembered as the greatest British Prime Minister in at least one respect… hanging on to power.
Most Prime Ministers will struggle through a couple of crises/scandals in their time in office, but May – with an enviable track-record of surviving crushing defeats, scandals and resignations – is on course to outdo them all.
So, looking back on the past three years, here are seven times Theresa May should’ve resigned (but didn’t):
1. The 2017 Snap Election:
The 2017 election appeared to be the beginning of the (agonisingly drawn out) end for May’s premiership. Armed with a poll bounce giving her a 20+ point lead over Labour in the polls, May made a dramatic U-turn on her promise not to call a snap election – hoping to shore up her majority for the Brexit battles ahead.
Of course, this did not materialise, and in one of the greatest humiliations of British political history, May lost her majority to a resurgent Labour Party. May clung on, negotiating a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP, giving her a wafer-thin majority in parliament.
Desires in her party to avoid another election at all costs and paralysis over which wing of the party a future leader would emerge from, meant May was allowed to stay as caretaker leader for the short term. A year and a half later though, very little has changed in this regard – giving hope to May that she may end up more than a caretaker leader after all.
2. The Windrush Scandal:
Windrush was a huge political scandal in April 2018 about the deportation (or threatened deportation) of legal British immigrants, who had arrived mostly from Caribbean countries before 1973.
Although it is difficult to pin the blame for this scandal entirely on a single minister, the scandal has been primarily attributed to the ‘hostile environment’ policy instituted during Theresa May’s time as Home Secretary.
Despite May’s six-year tenure in the job, Amber Rudd (who had replaced May as Home Secretary) took the fall for the scandal and resigned, meaning May could survive another crisis.
3. The Brexit Secretary and Foreign Secretary Both Resigning Within 24 hours:
Following the failed 2017 election gamble, legislating Brexit issues was always going to be difficult for May with her reduced majority. But when her draft plans were revealed at Chequers, they were too much for the two most senior Brexiteers in the cabinet.
After months of speculation, Boris Johnson eventually resigned as foreign secretary, followed by the Brexit secretary David Davis – leaving May to face the fallout of the resignations of two senior cabinet ministers.
Never to be deterred by a career-ending crisis, May quickly replaced the two – presumably hoping to resolve these issues by the time the plan actually had to be voted on.
4. Having Essentially the Same Thing Happen Again:
For some Brexiteers the Chequers plan was bad, but as it wasn’t the final agreement with the EU they could hold their noses and continue to work with the government.
When the final EU withdrawal agreement was revealed to the public though, senior Brexiteers Dominic Raab (her replacement Brexit secretary) and Esther McVey (the work and pensions secretary) both resigned in protest.
May responded in the same way as the last time two senior Brexiteers resigned from her cabinet over her deal, she replaced them and moved on.
5. A Third of Conservative MPs Voting No Confidence in Her Leadership:
After Chequers and the withdrawal agreement, the Conservative Brexiteers were readying themselves to show their strength by sinking May’s withdrawal agreement when it came to a vote in the commons.
But, at the 11th hour, May (ever the survivor) delayed the vote to avoid defeat. The Brexiteers finally mustered the support needed to trigger a confidence vote in her leadership, which May won by 200 to 117 votes.
Although May won the vote, a third of her own MPs voting against her leadership would’ve been more than enough to sink most Prime Ministers (Thatcher won her confidence vote 204 to 152 but resigned quickly afterwards), but apparently not May.
6. The Government Being Found in Contempt of Parliament (for the first time ever):
Number six is, surprisingly, another Brexit crisis.
After failing to release the full legal advice obtained by the government on the withdrawal agreement negotiated between the UK and EU, the House of Commons took the unprecedented move of finding the government in contempt of parliament and forcing the release of the advice.
Facing a humiliating and unprecedented defeat in parliament could well have collapsed a government just years ago. Now it’s just another day in British politics.
7. Losing the Vote on Her Flagship Policy with the Biggest Margin of Defeat in History:
So here it is, after two years of bitter infighting, parliamentary battles, drawn out negotiations and last-minute delays, the deal that had come to define the May premiership was finally put before parliament on the 16th January…
A vote of no confidence has been called in the government by the opposition, but with Tory rebels from across the party confirming their support for May, as well as the DUP, May is almost certain to survive the vote.
If May can survive this devastating defeat, then the only logical conclusion is that she is politically immortal and all efforts to remove her from power are futile. I only hope that in 10 years’ time, when May returns her renegotiated Brexit deal to parliament for the 40th time and she is still expected to resign ‘by the end of next week’, that maybe we can look back on these early years to make some sense of May’s eternal survival and the groundhog day we all now live in.