She may be better known for her kitten heels and her promise of a “strong and stable” government, or perhaps for her coughing fit at a Tory conference, while the backdrop fell off the wall behind her, and a prankster handed her a P45. But history may yet have more to say about Theresa May, our prime minister for a tortuous three years from 2016 to 2019. In his memoirs, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said he respected her straightforward style, but lamented her lack of flexibility. 

Now that Ms May has announced her intention to stand down at the forthcoming general election, her turbulent spell in No.10 will come under increasing scrutiny, particularly her constant battle with arch Tory Brexiteers and their friends in the tabloid press, who made her life a misery. With the benefit of hindsight, many of her former critics may now see that her Brexit deal, rejected three times in parliament, would have benefited Britain more than the agreement we finally struck, with Boris Johnson at the helm. 

Ms May’s Brexit strategy was designed to preserve some of the trading advantages of membership of the EU single market, while at the same time guaranteeing the security of the Good Friday Agreement by retaining an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The former Prime Minister says that while neither the hard Brexiteers or the rigid Remainers would have achieved 100% of what they wanted, her Brexit deal would have provided the UK with a better overall future. Known as ‘The Withdrawal Agreement’, her deal included a 21- month transition period during which the UK would maintain a close trading relationship with the EU while allowing time for further negotiations on the future relationship. This transition period offered businesses and individuals more time to adjust to the changes brought about by Brexit, reducing potential disruptions. 

By scrapping Theresa May’s proposed transition period and opting for a rapid exit under his ‘Let’s get Brexit done’ strategy, Boris Johnson created trade disruption with the EU, our largest trading partner. The introduction of customs checks, new tariffs, and regulatory barriers, created increased costs and administrative burdens for businesses, leading to delays in supply chains and reduced export competitiveness. The UK's departure from the EU's single market and customs union also resulted in reduced market access for British businesses like financial services and agriculture. As we struggle to combat inflation and to drag ourselves out of recession, managing the economic disadvantages of Boris’s Brexit and adapting to the new post-Brexit landscape will be crucial for the UK's long-term economic success.

Additionally, Theresa May's Brexit withdrawal deal included provisions aimed at protecting citizens' rights, ensuring that the tens of thousands of EU citizens residing in the UK and vice versa would retain their rights post-Brexit. This was a crucial component, providing certainty and stability for individuals living and working across borders. As we now know, the Brexit deal agreed by Boris Johnson led to a widespread exodus of EU citizens working in the NHS and our hospitality sectors and disrupted the arrival of seasonal workers in the agricultural industry. 

EU citizens who chose to stay have encountered huge bureaucratic hurdles, having to apply for settled or pre-settled status to secure their legal right to remain in the UK. The application process has been criticized for its complexity and the daunting task of gathering the required documentation. Despite assurances from the UK government that EU citizens' rights would be protected after Brexit, there is still lingering uncertainty about the long-term implications and changes that may affect their residency status, healthcare, pensions, and other entitlements. Added to the discrimination and hostility that many EU citizens in the UK faced following Brexit, many felt they were no longer welcome in their adopted country, facing prejudice and xenophobia.

On an even trickier issue, May's Brexit deal aimed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by incorporating the controversial Irish backstop mechanism. The backstop was intended to ensure that there would be no physical infrastructure or checks on the border, preserving peace and stability in the region. By comparison, Boris Johnson's deal, which removed the Irish backstop and introduced a new protocol for Northern Ireland, has raised concerns about potential trade barriers within the United Kingdom and disruptions to the delicate peace established by the Good Friday Agreement. 

Boris’s deal triggered the prospect of a virtual hard border in the Irish Sea, where goods entering the North could be checked before potentially travelling on into the EU. However, the creation of a border in the Irish Sea angered the Unionists who saw it as weakening Northern Ireland’s status within the UK. It also infuriated the arch Tory Brexiteers who saw the bureaucratic customs forms and checks as having a negative impact on trade. There was also on-going resentment from the Brexiteer hardliners that disputes on the protocol could be referred to the European court of justice. 

A UK idea to create a ‘green channel’ at ports like Cairnryan in Scotland, where goods destined to remain in Northern Ireland could be waved through without any customs checks, while goods heading to the Republic of Ireland would have to pass through a rigorous ‘red channel’, has now been implemented. IT systems shared by the EU and UK are helping to fast-track the movement of goods and products. 

While both deals aimed to fulfil the mandate of Brexit, Theresa May's deal offered a more gradual and negotiated approach, providing extra stability and predictability for businesses, citizens, and the overall economy. In contrast, Boris Johnson's deal prioritized a faster exit from the EU, but at the cost of potential complications and uncertainties, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland. History will decide who was right and indeed history may decide if Brexit was a flawed idea from the outset.

Describing Theresa May as "a courageous, tenacious woman surrounded by a lot of men busy putting their personal interests before those of their country," Michel Barnier concluded that the outcome of the Brexit negotiations was determined by "the quarrels, low blows, multiple betrayals and thwarted ambitions of a certain number of Tory MPs". How true!