What is Theresa May’s legacy and what’s next for the Conservative Party?

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PM Theresa May. Credit: https://www.gov.uk


1. Brexit uncertainty will probably eclipse everything but what is the legacy of Theresa May?

2. It probably very much depends on who will become a Tory leader but what’s for Conservative Party?


Robin PettittSenior Lecturer in Comparative Politics, Department of Politics and International Relations, Kingston University

As you said in the question, Theresa May will be remembered for her failed Brexit efforts. I think long term May will be remembered taking on an impossible task, and doing it badly. There was probably no way of doing Brexit well, but May made a number of mistakes that made the
task even less doable than it was at the beginning. Her early laying down of ‘red lines’ limited her room for manoeuvre; the terrible general election campaign in 2017 further undermined her power; and her failure to reach out cross-party, and to Remainers after loosing her majority will be seen as a mistake.

However, I think May will also be seen as someone of incredible tenacity. For better or worse, she kept on going after setbacks that would have taken down most other politicians. The pressures she withstood were immense. Not much good came of her clinging on, but her ability to cling will I believe be remembered.

2. On the Conservative Party, they are in for a very difficult time. It is almost guaranteed that the next leader will be a hard Brexit supporter. Most of the front runners have talked about accepting a no deal Brexit on 31 October if necessary. It is possible that even a no deal Brexiteer will soften when faced with the reality of being in government. However, there will be huge pressure from the Brexit Party. If the next Conservative Party leader fails to ‘deliver’ Brexit they will face a very serious challenge from the Brexit Party, and for many Conservative voters ‘deliver’ means no deal. However, if the next leader tries for no deal Brexit it is very possible that they will lose a vote of no confidence as moderate Conservative MPs vote against their own government. In some ways, they are faced with the difficult situation of having to deliver what is arguably impossible to deliver, no deal, and severe electoral punishment if they do not deliver no deal.

Kristian SteinnesProfessor, Department of Historical Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

1. May’s legacy. A person who has been consistent throughout. She set out to deliver what she saw her mission, honour and deliver the result from the 2016 referenda. She has been hardworking and consistent, yet she has not been able to deliver what she set out to do. And she has, in my opinion, based her premiership on some miscalculations. Her snap general election in 2017 was close to a catastrophe. She lost the Conservative majority in the House of Commons, which in severely reduced her chances to deliver what she was set to do. After the referenda, she had to rely on the DUP – which is in favour of Brexit, but the overall concern for the DUP is to keep Northern Ireland in the UK. She also put up some red lines she eventually could not keep, f. ex. no deal is better than a bad deal. She had to accept the ‘backstop’ which made her Withdrawal Agreement a bad deal to many in her own party, but she argues it is a good deal.

2. The situation for the Conservative party is very delicate. A huge majority in the Conservative party members, I think about 75%, prefer to leave with no deal. Yet it is highly likely that this is impossible due to lack of majority for such an outcome in the Commons. So if a new ‘no deal’ leader, say BoJo, is elected, it will become a very difficult task. Yet if another, more moderate leader is elected, the party may continue along the May path. Either way, it will be very challenging for the party. Cameron’s idea, to solve internal problems over Europe by holding a referenda, have collapsed. It is very difficult to see the way ahead for the party. The about 100 MP strong European Research Group (nobody knows the exact number) headed by Rees-Mogg, will hardly accept May’s deal – or any deal involving a backstop clause of any kind. And new negotiations with the EU, producing another deal (without a backstop) is highly unlikely. Thus a possible moderate leader who realises that a deal with the EU has to be stroke in order to carry out Brexit, will also face problems internally, but seems to be the only way ahead in the Commons. If a hard-line Brexiter is elected, the party will not be able to deliver Brexit, yet if a moderate leader is elected, s/he will not be able to bring the party along. In some ways it looks like a recipe for splitting the party, yet party big-wigs also know that this would reduce their chances to have their way.

Nobody seems to give in inside the Conservative party. I cannot see the way ahead. Solution? New referenda after all? General election (risking being heavily punished by the electorate – or installing Corbyn as PM)? Also perhaps unlikely…

Bill JonesSenior Honorary Research Fellow,  Liverpool Hope University

1. Not much at all. She’s proved a disappointingly mediocre politician who cannot innovate new policy, cannot persuade her colleagues and cannot recognise political reality let alone compromise with it. She’ll go well down the league table of PMs since 1945.

2. Conservatives re in crisis. If they vote for GE they could get hammered as the new Brexit Party will eat up crucial amounts of their vote. If they do go for no deal and refuse to pay divorce bill they will alienate key economic partners and suffer the electoral backlash of economic damage caused.

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