“You’re probably tired of getting asked questions about Brexit, but …” began a Trinity University student Thursday when it was his turn to ask a question of former British Prime Minister Theresa May.
“You think I get asked questions about Brexit?” May said in jest on stage at the university’s Laurie Auditorium. The crowd – including hundreds of Trinity students, alumni, and the general public – laughed. It was the first of several questions she would be asked by the student body regarding Britain’s recent withdrawal from the European Union, an issue that prompted the Conservative leader’s resignation as prime minister last year.
May stepped down after Parliament rebuffed several Brexit proposals she backed, and her successor, Boris Johnson, led Britain’s formal withdrawal on Jan. 31. Negotiations on the final terms of the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU – an economic and political union involving 28 European countries that abide by the same currency, trade, and travel rules – started earlier this week.
“What do you expect to come out of the wash in terms of the ability to live and work in Europe in the future?” asked the student, who said he was a dual citizen of the United States and the United Kingdom.
“It will be different,” May said, “because free movement [to and from the U.K.] will not be open to people. The opportunities, I think, will still be there – but it will be a different process.”
Professional status is one of the considerations that will be discussed as part of the withdrawal agreement approved by Britain’s Parliament and the EU, May said. “That is an issue that has to be finalized.”
May delivered her lecture on the theme of “Lessons on Leadership: A Global Perspective,” as part of Trinity’s Flora Cameron Lecture on Politics and Public Affairs. The event was free and open to the public, but security was tight, with backpacks and large bags prohibited in the auditorium and no photography allowed.
After serving as Home Secretary from 2010 to 2016 and as a member of Parliament since 1997, she was named prime minister in July 2016 after David Cameron stepped down from the post following a national referendum on leaving the EU, with 52 percent voting in favor.
“I campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU because I believed, on balance, it was in our economic and security interests to do so,” May said. “But I was not starry-eyed about the EU as an institution and I did not believe those who said the sky would fall in if we voted to leave it.”
Regardless, once the voters had spoken, she said, “I had no doubt that [Brexit] had to be implemented.”
Her demeanor and political savvy, however, left much to be desired among pundits and the public.
May was among the “worst retail politicians that Britain has ever seen,” said Ellen Barry, a New York Times correspondent based in London, in an April 2019 podcast. May had a hard time being personal and going off-script.
Then-House of Commons speaker John Bercow, who delayed May’s Brexit proposals, wrote in his memoir Unspeakable that May was “decent but as wooden as your average coffee table, a worthy public servant but as dull as ditchwater.”
“I might have a different view on that,” May said with a smile.
A Trinity student pointed out that May often doesn’t get the credit she deserves for leading her nation through some of the toughest, most divisive times in its history.
“The United States is going through a similar time with [the presidential election],” he said. “How do you think populism has contributed to that rise in the divide?”
“We face a huge challenge with populism and in a sense it’s contributed to – but is also the result of – some of these issues of polarization that you’re speaking about,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with politicians wanting to deliver popular policies … but what populism does is actually try to divide society – to try to create an animus agenda.”
That agenda could lead us to “a very dangerous place,” she said.
May also touched on her accomplishments during her time as PM, work that was often overshadowed by Brexit.
Under her leadership, the Tories were the first conservative political party in the UK to advocate for and pass a law that legalized same-sex marriage, she noted. She also established Women2Win, a nonprofit aimed at getting more conservative women elected to Parliament, and oversaw an increase in female representation in her party as chair.
While she said she didn’t experience “overt sexism” herself, there are clear barriers for women in British politics. As of December, 34 percent of Parliament is female, the highest portion of either chamber to date. Only a quarter of the Conservative party’s MPs are female, but the Labour party is represented by more women than men.
“[It’s] a lot better but, not enough,” May said, calling for better regulation of social media companies that should be held responsible for allowing harassment and threats toward women.
When in a position of leadership, she said, it’s more important to do what you think is right – not what is easy or popular. That was her approach on Brexit and remains her view on politics in general.
“Leadership that simply reflects the country’s prevailing view back to it – or which is too superficial in approach to take the time and effort to investigate the detail and examine the evidence – will lead to the wrong outcomes,” she said. “You must be focused on what is right – the right course for the long term.”