British Prime Minister Theresa May quit on Friday night New Zealand time. After two tumultuous years at No. 10 Downing Street, during which time in equal measure she earned ridicule and contempt but little praise. Mrs May announced she was standing down on 07 June 2019. As New Zealand and the world watch to see who will replace her, it is useful to have a look at the legacy of Mrs May – otherwise derisively known as the “Maybot”.
It will be defined in part by a burning tower on a beautiful summer evening in London in 2017. The Grenfell tower fire was a man made tragedy that in large part could have been avoided, and will be better remembered in four parts:
- the robotically cold officialdom that utterly failed to show any humanity;
- the fire fighters who had to fight the fire and will be forever haunted by what they saw (watching a Youtube clip of them remembering the dead was hard on the eyes);
- very obviously from across the broad spectrum of backgrounds they came, the victims themselves and their families who are no closer to finding out how this happened;
- the many people who saw it and wondered how this could be happening in 21st Century Britain
This was Mrs May’s first big test and a spectacular failing of her leadership, her compassion and her ability to make anything politically useful out of the fire. Disasters are not meant to be political capital making exercises, but a public figure who pulls all the right levers in the appropriate time – high visibility, seen to be caring about the victims, offering what relief might be possible – and it can become a significant unintentional exercise in exactly that.
In New Zealand the Grenfell fire caused a brief ripple of concern about high rises in New Zealand that might have the same or similarly flammable cladding on them. And then, just as quickly, perhaps overtaken by our looming election, it dropped out of sight and I am sure many New Zealanders will have completely forgotten about it. In London that is not so easy.
As an Amnesty International member and activist, the willingness of the British Government to sell armaments to Saudi Arabia as the latter comes under renewed fire for its alleged war crimes in Yemen, this is like a cheese grater on my conscience. I can’t ignore it and the idea that a western nation admired and respected by New Zealand thinks arming war criminals to commit more war crimes really does not sit comfortably. I have tried to start, as well as sign numerous acts of activism against this in the hope that Saudi Arabia will put the cluster bombs and the American and British combat jets that were used to drop them on Yemeni schools, hospitals and houses, away.
But it will be that awful mess on the common table shared with the European Union that will define Mrs May. Call Brexit what you will, but can anyone honestly say nearly 3 years after the referendum and over two years since the exit process was triggered, that they absolutely know what needs to happen and how? I certainly cannot. From a New Zealand stand point it is as clear as mud, just like it was on the day the two year Brexit process began.
Because of its muddy clear clarity, I can offer you the following assessment: I have no idea what is going on, except that Boris Johnson wants Mrs May’s job and has said Britain will be – deal or no deal – gone by the end of October 2019. But with possibly up to 20 people challenging or considering challenging for Mrs May’s job, Mr Johnson must first get the job.
So, when Mrs May departs, she will – despite being warm to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and showing respect for the Christchurch mosque attack victims – largely be remembered for being a Prime Minister who operated in a fog as impenetrable as the Brexit mess she was handed, and will hand on to her successor.