Coming to power outside of a general election, Theresa May finds herself in one of the perennial dilemmas of British politics. The ability, as well as advisability, of crafting a clearly separate identity to your predecessor is key when both a degree of continuity and change is demanded from government. The need to remain generally compliant with the previous administration is set against the general onus for change that led to the removal of the previous prime minister. Arguably, Theresa May finds herself much better off than most others in this situation. David Cameron’s limited legacy and his dramatic fall from grace, combined with a failure of the opposition to rejuvenate itself, gives her the opportunity to liberate herself from the restraints of previous government decisions. Arguably, no prime minister has found themselves freer than Theresa May since Harold Macmillan took over from Anthony Eden in 1957.
As the post-mortem of Cameron’s time as prime minister continues, it is becoming clearer that his gamble and failure with the European Union referendum will overshadow his achievements in office. This is in stark contrast to a year ago, where one would likely argue that Cameron’s greatest achievement was his 2015 general election victory. This victory gave Cameron the opportunity to clearer define his ideology after five years of diluted, coalition government. However, this identity building never occurred. With his premiership cut short, Cameron leaves an unclear legacy and thus little to confront. This has very clear parallels with Anthony Eden’s premiership. Eden’s tenure was cut short, and political legacy overshadowed by the failure of Suez. Similarly the Conservatives had not established a clear agenda in the ideologically devoid premiership of Winston Churchill. Macmillan, in the political chaos following Suez, had a near clean slate to worth with in forming his policies and personal ideology, for he had the ability to reconstruct the Conservatives by renouncing the leader that failed in Suez. Macmillan could therefore decisively switch his support for Eden and military action to supporting withdrawal from Egypt. It is in this manner that May can decisively accept that Brexit is the only acceptable course of action, and form a government on her own lines. She owes nothing to Cameron after his failure, and thus, can purge his acolytes from her government.
This freedom is not the case for most successor prime ministers. In direct contrast is John Major, who faced the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. She had enjoyed over 10 years of large majority, bold policy government. Major was bound to carry on the work of Thatcher, for in large part, and in the party consciousness, this had worked for the last decade. His role was to revise, rather than reconstruct. May can console herself with the fact that she faces a party much less divided than Major. While there are inevitably going to be splits within the party for May to overcome, few feel the loyalty to Cameron that many felt towards Thatcher after her removal. There is no ‘stabbed in the back’ myth for Cameron, merely an acknowledgement from all sides that his incompetence in allowing Britain to leave the European Union left his position untenable.
May has the greatest opportunity for a prime minister to succeed to the premiership since Macmillan. Whether she makes the most of this is still to be seen, but the restrictions placed on her through the legacy of her predecessor are lower than Brown, Callaghan, and Douglas-Home faced. Compounded with other benefits, such as an opposition defying the political cycle in their incompetence, she has the ability to do great things.