The stiff upper lip is a trait that’s well-admired by the English — the ability to stoically carry on in the face of adversity, to show little emotion.
At her final hour of reckoning in Downing Street, at a podium perched in the front of the most famous black door in the world, UK Prime Minister Theresa May bottled it. Her lips quivered, her voice cracked and the tears welled up for the final sentence of her resignation statement, professing love for her beloved Britain. Too bad the Brits didn’t love her.
After almost three years in office, only the second female to become Prime Minister of the nation of 66 million odd people — sometimes very odd people — May is a broken woman, broken by Brexit, broken by a broke nation.
For the rest of her days, and in the history tomes of times to come, May will be remembered as the leader who failed to deliver Brexit. It is the Gordian knot she could not untie, the Sisyphus boulder that kept on rolling, a conundrum that has divided communities and the country. And her Conservatives.
But whoever of the 11 candidates now seeking to replace her as leader of that deeply divided Conservative party and then becomes the next PM will too face the Herculean task of bringing about Brexit — either with or without an agreement with the other 27 member states of the European Union.
In all likelihood, before that fateful referendum of June 23, 2016, the then Home Secretary and Member of Parliament for Maidenhead had little chance of become PM. But David Cameron, a leader who gambled on winning that plebiscite and ending the perplexing question of EU membership for the Conservatives once and for all, lost — like big time, like creating the entire mess of these past three years and likely three more to come.
For her party she was a safe pair of hands — not a rabid Brexiteer like Boris Johnson or Michael Gove — the preacher’s daughter who was parsimonious and prudent; born in Eastbourne in Sussex on October 1, 1956.
She read geography at Oxford and earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1977, meeting husband Phillip and marrying him in 1980.
She dabbled in Conservative party politics, worked in the financial and education sector before being elected MP in 1997 in the very safe Tory seat she still represents to this day.
In 2002 May was appointed the first female chairman of the Conservative Party and was famously quoted as saying it must no longer be known as the “Nasty Party.” She served in several Shadow Cabinet posts before becoming Home Secretary in 2010, and also became the Minister for Women and Equalities, a post she vacated in 2012.
While Home Secretary, police forces across the UK lost 22,000 front line officers — cuts that would later come back to haunt May as PM, trying to organise her nation’s response to a string of murderous terrorist attacks in Manchester and London.
May took office promising to honour the results of the referendum — she herself was a Remainer even if a Euro-sceptic. Within nine months she gave formal notice under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that the UK would be leaving the EU on March 29, 2019. That date has come and gone, others too, and yet the UK remains in the EU until at least October 31 — possibly longer.
Two years of negotiations have resulted in a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU — but it remains unpassed on the floor of the House of Commons after three times of asking.
Those three defeats, along with the humiliation of a string of parliamentary defeats weakened her status as leader of the Conservative party — a viperous pit of politicians self-consumed in petty prevarications and unable to put their nation’s interests first. In mid-December, 113 of them voted against her in a no-confidence motion, with the other 200 backing her if not wholeheartedly.
In her efforts to get the Withdrawal Agreement passed on a fourth time of asking, she tried finding a compromise with the opposition Labour party, failed to do so and instead came up with a list of 10 principles that would somehow magically make the deal all the more palatable. It didn’t. But what it did do was force even more to resign from the cabinet, weakening her to the point where there was no alternative — she simply had to go.
May will be remembered as a leader who was unwilling to compromise, a politician that lacked a popular touch, an orator who was monotonous and repeated the same banal slogans and catchphrases that simply failed to resonate with voters, with her party, with her cabinet and with the shrewd team of negotiators assembled across the table by the 27 European nations who are aligned with Brussels.
She wasn’t a match for them. Nor for her party. Nor for her country.