Geoffrey Boycott fan Theresa May promised to stay at the crease, but failed

There is some poignancy to Theresa May stepping down as prime minister just when the World Cup is on in England. She has been called an ‘ice maiden’ and ‘Maybot’ due to her robot-like responses inside and outside parliament, but one of the more interesting facets of her personality has been her enduring love of cricket.

Her hero is Geoffrey Boycott, the redoubtable Yorkshire man who in his prime was the scourge of many due to his dour plodding at the crease. He and his qualities were often mentioned when May was questioned inside and outside parliament about her ability to deliver Brexit. Just like Boycott, she insisted, she would stick to it and “get the runs in the end.”

But, as May announced her stepping down as Conservative leader on June 7 in an emotional address outside 10, Downing Street on May 24, it promises to be another example of the famous Powellism that all political careers end in failure – in her case, literally ending in tears. The defining theme of her prime ministership has been Brexit. She remains the caretaker prime minister until her successor takes over in the week beginning July 22.

David Cameron’s legacy is falling on his sword by calling the 2016 referendum and then resigning as prime minister after it threw up the vote to leave the European Union (his government campaigned to remain). May will be remembered for her Boycott-like doggedness in pursuing her version of Brexit, but not “getting the runs” in the end. It was Brexit that sucked all the attention in Whitehall and Westminster, and three years on, there is little sign of it being resolved to the satisfaction of all.

May attracted most of the blame for the impasse due to her uncompromising red lines, as over 35 ministers resigned during her prime ministership. She called the 2017 mid-term election, hoping to win a bigger majority than the 2015 one to push through Brexit, but presided over the Conservative party losing its majority. As history tells us, Tory grandees never forgive leaders who do not deliver majority in elections.

It was a matter of time before the grey suits went up to her and offered her the option of either resigning or facing the ignominy of being removed. Losing several Brexit motions in parliament hastened the process, until she was forced to announce that she will step down after the state visit of US President Donald Trump.

The arithmetic in the House of Commons does not change after May leaves office, neither will the entrenched positions of pro- and anti-Brexiteers. How her successor navigates the Brexit minefield remains to be seen, but May made some gestures towards India during her tenure.

Her first visit abroad as prime minister was to India in November 2016, amid much talk of the UK looking to India and the Commonwealth in the post-Brexit situation, when it will not be part of the European Single Market. It is a different matter that India and the Commonwealth together cannot come anywhere near compensating for the UK losing access to the single market. May’s charm offensive during the visit included visiting the Someshwara Temple in Bengaluru in a sari, but the abiding takeaway was negative due to concerns around immigration.

May did not engage much in parliamentary debates on Indian issues as an MP, and as prime minister, preoccupation over Brexit may have prevented her from focussing more on India, but as the home secretary (2010-2016) she had much impact on India in the area of immigration. In April 2012, she closed the post-study work visa, which was popular among self-financing Indian students, and which is one of the key reasons for a major drop in the number of Indian students coming to British universities since.

She received praise for closing down many bogus colleges who enrolled a large number of Indian and other non-EU students, many of whom had other objectives than studies. May also consistently resisted pressure from cabinet colleagues, universities and others to ease curbs on student visas, which reinforced her image of a tough home secretary.

In 2013, she infuriated New Delhi by including India in a list of five countries whose citizens were to be subjected to a visa bond of 3000 pounds to be returned after they returned to their countries. The scheme was dropped in the face of outrage, but her intentions to clamp down on immigration were clear.

During the India visit, amid persistent questions over visa curbs, she declared she would “consider further improvements to our visa offer if at the same time we can step up the speed and volume of returns of Indians with no right to remain in the UK”. The issue of illegal Indians in the UK – whose number is a matter of debate between London and New Delhi – remains one of the major outstanding issues in bilateral relations.

Relieved of prime ministerial duties, May and her husband Philip will probably attend some World Cup matches, but the tenure of the second woman prime minister in British history is unlikely to be compared favourably with that of the first, Margaret Thatcher, whichever side the Brexit coin falls.

First Published:
Jun 14, 2019 20:06 IST

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