Theresa May resigned as prime minister of the UK—here’s what you should know about her legacy.
May resigned from office on a bitter note, her tenure dominated by what was largely regarded as failure after failure in the drama of “Brexit”, one of the most divisive, confusing, and heavily covered news events of the past few years. The UK Prime Minister’s name became synonymous with the impending exit from the European Union, but she’s actually been in the political world for more than 20 years—making headlines for everything from calling out her own party for its prejudice and backwards outlook, to suffering the biggest parliamentary defeat of any sitting government in UK history.
Born the daughter of an Anglican vicar and raised in the English district of Oxfordshire, then Theresa Brasier was instilled with an early duty to public service. She was an only child who reportedly had aspirations of becoming the first woman prime minister from an early age.
Margaret Thatcher would later beat her to it, but young Theresa followed in her footsteps, attending Oxford University. She joined the Conservative Party, often colloquially referred to as the Tory party, before she was even a teenager. Despite her political ambitions, May didn’t jump straight in. Following graduation, she actually went to work for the Bank of England in 1977. It would take almost 15 years for her to run for a parliamentary seat.
In 1992, after serving several years as a councillor in a London borough, she stood for what was largely seen as an unwinnable seat in North West Durham. She lost, and lost again in a special election in 1994.
But things turned around for May in 1997, when she won her first parliamentary seat in Maidenhead, which has never been held by anyone other than the Conservatives. But the reverse happened for her party.
As the Labour Party’s Tony Blair became Prime Minister under the slogan “Things can only get better”, and while many Conservatives were being voted out, May was just getting started. She was one of only 13 women Conservative MPs, comprising less than 8% of the party’s representatives. A couple years later, she joined the shadow cabinet, which is basically a cabinet of members from the opposition party, who would hold office if their party were in power. It’s the shadow cabinet’s job to challenge the party in power.
By 2002, she was the first woman chair of the Conservative party, and was quick to bluntly call for reforms and deeming the party’s base to be quote “too narrow.” She served in the trenches of the opposition until 2010, when Conservative leader David Cameron became Prime Minister, ending 13 years of Labour Party rule.
That year, May was appointed Home Secretary, overseeing areas like crime and immigration. It was a position that had seen crisis after crisis under Labour. She’d become one of the country's longest-serving people in this position. But her legacy would prove to be multifaceted and, at times, contentious.
She promised from the beginning of her time as Home Secretary to crack down on immigration. She promised early on to get the net number of immigrants coming to the UK annually to tens of thousands, which she ultimately failed to do, and would never have been able to do with free movement from the European Union.
In 2012, May explained that her approach was “to create a hostile environment” for migrants in the country illegally, even at one time reportedly overseeing a billboard campaign warning them to “go home or face arrest.” May’s adviser later claimed that she tried to block the campaign. But she also took on issues that weren’t perfectly aligned with traditional Conservative values. Despite previously voicing support for legislation that prohibited the quote “promotion of homosexuality in schools,” she eventually became one of the first senior Conservatives to support gay marriage.
Despite her controversial legacy, she managed to cling to the role longer than any other home secretary since World War II. And then, rather suddenly, came her biggest ascension of all to the role she’d coveted since childhood: Prime Minister. Her predecessor, David Cameron, stepped down unexpectedly following the referendum in 2016, in which the UK voted 51.9% to 48.1% to leave the European Union. May assumed the role of prime minister after her only opponent withdrew from the race to become Conservative Party leader.
In the years since the Brexit vote, she’s negotiated with Parliament and the EU in an effort to arrange a deal that both sides would agree on. Resultantly, every deal she’s attempted to pass has failed.
In March 2019, she even offered to resign if the latest version of her deal passed. It didn’t. It’s also worth noting that not long after the Brexit vote, she became the first world leader to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump after his inauguration, and despite hopes of a U.S.-UK trade deal that would offset the losses of leaving the EU - she didn’t really establish a rapport with Trump.
It’s unclear what’s in store for the future of the country's leadership—but what is clear is that whatever happens in that time, especially when it comes to delivering Brexit, may very well be her lasting legacy.