Theresa May’s divisive policy legacy

The “Brexit Prime Minister” who failed to deliver Brexit will be remembered for her attempts to reduce immigration and her confrontations with the police. 

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In the distant summer of 2016, when Theresa May entered Downing Street, she aspired to be a transformative Prime Minister in the mould of Margaret Thatcher and Clement Attlee. Britain’s economy and society, she vowed, would be renewed and its “burning injustices” rectified.

But the epic task of seeking to withdraw the UK from the European Union meant May was always fated to be “the Brexit Prime Minister”. Yet even that goal eluded her.

History will remember May for little. But the policies she enacted, both during her six years at the Home Office (2010-16) and her three years at No 10, were far from inconsequential.

Immigration restrictions and the “hostile environment”

If one aim has defined May’s political career it is her desire to dramatically reduce immigration to the UK. As home secretary, and then as Prime Minister, she championed the target of cutting net migration to “tens of thousands” a year. Though this goal was never met, May placed severe restrictions on non-EU migrants, including international students (a group she consistently refused to remove from the net immigration target).

This included the creation of a “hostile environment” for immigrants, a policy that May defined as “deport first and hear appeals later”, and that required landlords, employers and public services to carry out onerous identity checks. “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest,” declared the notorious advertising vans introduced in 2013, which were withdrawn several months later following public outcry.

After May became Prime Minister, the policy returned to haunt her in the form of the Windrush scandal, which saw long-standing residents wrongly detained, denied employment and healthcare and even deported. But it was May’s successor as home secretary, Amber Rudd, who was ultimately forced to resign over the affair after falsely claiming that no deportation targets were set.

Police cuts and reform

As home secretary, May endured a more combative relationship with the police than any recent predecessor. Police spending was cut by 20 per cent, as part of the government’s austerity programme, and officer numbers fell by 19,000.

Once more, May’s past stalked her premiership, which saw a sharp rise in knife crime and multiple terrorist attacks. On 20 May 2015, as Police Federation members warned May of the effects of cuts, the future PM defiantly told the body to stop “scaremongering” and “crying wolf”, an approach Labour was able to exploit during the fateful 2017 general election.

May, however, was praised by liberals for her 2014 address to the federation in which she declared: “When you remember the list of recent revelations about police misconduct, it is not enough to mouth platitudes about ‘a few bad apples’. The problem might lie with a minority of officers, but it is still a significant problem, and a problem that needs to be addressed ... according to one survey carried out recently, only 42 per cent of black people from a Caribbean background trust the police. That is simply not sustainable.”

As home secretary, May created a new offence of police corruption and reduced the use of stop-and-search, a policy Conservative rivals would later blame for rising crime (though studies have found no evidence of a significant connection).

Higher NHS spending but no end to austerity

One of the few significant policies that May announced as Prime Minister was a £20bn increase in NHS spending by 2023, to mark the health service’s 70th anniversary. Though the headline figure sounded impressive, in reality it amounted to an increase of 3.4 per cent a year, below the historic average of 4 per cent, and did not compensate for the preceding eight years of austerity (when spending rose by an average of just 1.3 per cent). Meanwhile, spending on public health continued to fall and social care remained starved of adequate resources (a long-promised green paper never materialised).

As Prime Minister, May moderated but did not abandon austerity. Though the 1 per cent public sector pay cap was lifted, almost all government departments continued to endure real-terms spending cuts and policies such as the cap on benefit increases remained.

In her resignation speech, May declared: “we are bringing an end to austerity”. But it will fall to her successor to determine whether the era of cuts is finally ended in the forthcoming spending review.

Housing: failed expectations and the spectre of Grenfell  

May spoke often of her desire to dramatically increase housebuilding, which had fallen to its lowest level since the 1920s under David Cameron. But her rhetoric failed to match reality. In 2018, just 165,090 homes were completed, a 1 per cent increase on the previous year, and far below the 250,000 required to meet demand.

In contrast to Cameron, however, May did remove the cap on councils borrowing to build, and provided state funding for social rented homes for the first time this decade (though just 6,436 were built in the most recent year).

But her premiership was haunted by the spectre of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire. May’s refusal to meet survivors in the wake of the tragedy contrasted starkly with Jeremy Corbyn’s approach, and cast her as a cold, imperious figure. Though May promised to rehouse all residents within three weeks, 17 families remain in hotels or temporary accommodation. And hundreds of towers are still clad with the aluminium composite material used for Grenfell.

The policies that never were: “the dementia tax”, fox hunting and grammar schools

As Conservative leader, May was defined as much by the policies she did not implement as by those she did. The 2017 Tory manifesto — one of the most unpopular on record — included pledges to build new grammar schools, to reform social care (immortalised as “the dementia tax”), to hold a vote on ending the fox hunting ban, to end universal free school meals and to means-test Winter Fuel Payments. But after the public responded by depriving the Conservatives of their cherished parliamentary majority, every one of these policies was abandoned.

Though May never abandoned the ambition of Brexit, that, too, was not delivered. “It will be for my successor to seek a way forward that honours the result of the referendum,” the Prime Minister observed, perhaps with some satisfaction. “To succeed, he or she will have to find consensus in parliament where I have not.”

If there is any consolation for May it is that merely changing prime minister will do nothing to alter reality: there is no majority in parliament for any Brexit option.