March 8, 2024 - 3:45pm

Theresa May has become the latest MP to announce she is leaving the Commons. It’s unsurprising, really: she is nearing 70, will never hold major office again, and will gain little from a term on the backbenches of Opposition. Per her announcement, she can now find more satisfaction in charity work around modern slavery. More than that, however, stepping away from politics allows her to continue the rehabilitation of her reputation. 

All political careers may end in failure, but now it seems that many come with a surprising afterlife. The sins of holding office are gradually expunged, and an imaginary quality plastered on. This seems especially true of those who held the highest office and now enjoy lengthy retirements retconning their public image. 

For May, this has already begun, helped by the shower of successors in her wake. Among the commentariat, her time is often lauded as one of moderation and decency, before the collapse instigated by the libertine Boris Johnson, the chaos of Liz Truss, and the ineffectiveness of Rishi Sunak. That is, in fact, a myopic reading of recent history. 

Through her tenure as home secretary and prime minister, May was no centrist darling. At the Home Office she launched the “hostile environment” and the famous “Go home” vans. As prime minister she was seen as exacerbating, rather than soothing, post-Brexit divisions with her remarks about “citizens of nowhere”. It is only because of where the Conservative Party has moved afterwards that she receives this sort of acclaim. 

Equally, most of the failings of her leadership have been erased from memory. As Home Secretary, she was responsible for many of the cuts which are now undermining the criminal justice system. She stripped out thousands of officers in the name of austerity, while also failing to address the many institutional failings that are now becoming glaringly apparent. 

As prime minister she was more of a failure, and in both politics and policy she bungled her main goals. In 2017, her Tory Party turned a huge polling lead into a minority government, leaving her in an almost impossible position. This triggered the carnage of 2018 and 2019 as she struggled to get a Brexit deal though. Buffeted between the various wings of her party, she tried again and again to find some solution, but was rebuffed by Parliament at every stage. Eventually, she succumbed to her political wounds and left office, largely derided as one of the worst PMs ever. 

The only thing that has changed since then is adding new names to the list. Fortunately for May’s reputation, they have been bigger failures in their own ways. Compared to Johnson, she looks like a saint upholding national interest above her personal vices, while she’s more capable than Truss and popular than Sunak. By walking away now she capitalises on this, and her reputation will largely be better for the events of the last five years. 

This is perhaps not uncommon for ex-prime ministers in the modern age. John Major is now seen as a sensible elder statesman, despite the failure of his unpopular, scandal-ridden premiership. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have moved past their mistakes, while David Cameron is even back in government. Time has allowed each a re-evaluation, but this has been enhanced by the mess of our current politics. Perhaps therein lies the real truth — that legacies are less a reflection of what politicians do, and more of the times from which we look back on them. 

Theresa May has benefited from this attitude most of all. Her stint at the top seemed short and ineffectual back in 2019. What came after, however, has been a boon to her reputation. Now, as she steps out of the Commons altogether, she will likely keep polishing this version of events.

John Oxley is a corporate strategist and political commentator. His Substack is Joxley Writes.