Matthew Lesh

We are all paying the price for May’s desperate bid to define her legacy

We are all paying the price for May's desperate bid to define her legacy
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Theresa May’s final weeks in Downing Street have been much like the rest of her tenure: ungracious, uninspiring and unprincipled. May's latest departing gesture is a gigantic £500 million loan guarantee to Jaguar Land Rover to help with the development of electric cars. This follows on from the government’s £120 million loan to British Steel (which is now in receivership). But how does dishing out huge sums of money to corporate giants fit in with May's claim to stand up for the “Just About Managing”?

The simple answer? It doesn't. But in a desperate bid to help JAMs, May has created an "Office for Tackling Injustices” in order to “gather data” on socio-economic, ethnic, and gender disparities. Yet this approach, which is based on the flawed idea that any difference between people is evidence of bigotry, won't help. A quango that no one asked for is a good way to waste money. But it isn't the answer to any problem.

May is also trying to make tackling climate change part of her legacy in order to distract from the mess she has made of Brexit. Just days after her resignation last month, May committed the UK to “net zero carbon emissions by 2050”. Usually when politicians make long-shot targets they can at least pretend they will be around long enough to put some policies in place. But in this case, May is trying to bind future governments to a project that will cost hundreds of millions without the faintest clue about how it will be achieved.

May also seems to be doing her bit to make tackling a current crisis – ensuring that housing in Britain becomes more affordable – even trickier for her successor. In recent weeks, the PM has called for more red tape on home building and rentals. May said this was to ensure that the quality of new homes was good enough. But in reality, these measures are likely only to make housing even more expensive in the middle of a housing crisis that is causing the party of home owners to lose voters forever.

Left to her own devices, May would have been even worse. So we have Philip Hammond to thank for providing an important handbrake against May’s instinct to throw cash at her bid to carve out a legacy. The Chancellor, at least, knows that May's pet projects are being funded by taxpayers' money. May should remember that she has lost the confidence of the Conservative party. May is a lame duck PM and it is time she started acting like one.

Of course, May isn't the only one to blame for this situation. The weirdness of a delayed leadership election is an abrogation of the Westminster tradition. Normally when a prime minister no longer has confidence they do the honourable thing and immediately stand down. May eventually did resign—after every other option was closed off. But at that point that she should have focused on packing her bags rather than pushing new policies and being spendthrift with our money.

Instead, we have a virtue-signalling new office, a series of bids to bind future parliaments and huge sums of money tied up. Far from ensuring her legacy is a positive one, May's final weeks in office will leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

These measures will also add to the consensus that her time in office has been something of a disaster for her party. In her first speech as PM to Tory conference in 2016, May spoke of moving the Tories and Britain 'on the path towards the new centre ground of British politics'. In reality, this meant adopting large chunks of Labour’s big spending, high tax, economy-strangling red tape agenda.

May introduced an energy price cap, which has resulted in energy companies increasing prices and offering fewer cheap deals. She promised hundreds of billions more for the NHS without any corresponding commitment to improved patient outcomes. 

So the current state of the Conservatives – a party in a shambles, which lurches from one mistaken policy to the next – is the sad but very real legacy for May. 

For someone who spent her entire life as a supposed servant of the Conservatives, she has left her party in an unimaginably disastrous situation. A measly nine per cent of support in a national election and a party rudderless on the biggest challenge of the era—Brexit – with no memorable positive policy achievements, is what May leaves behind when either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt take over. Rather than gracefully journeying into the sunset of her leadership, May has decided to summon a thunderstorm of terrible, unprincipled policy decisions. May’s term has expired. She leaves a nation tired of politics. The next person has quite the job to undo May’s big mess.

Matthew Lesh is head of research at the Adam Smith Institute