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EXPLAINED: How Theresa May tried to create a legacy during her final weeks in Number 10

7 min read

Every Prime Minister wants to leave a legacy, but for Theresa May it seemed to matter more than most.

Having failed in her attempts to deliver Brexit - the defining mission of her three years as Prime Minister - May wanted some achievements to point to when she leaves 10 Downing Street for the last time.

So, unencumbered by the responsibility of taking the UK out of the EU, May has spent the final weeks of her time in office rolling out a series of announcements in areas which have been largely ignored during her time behind that famous black door.


Committing the UK to slash carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050 has been a major parting gift to climate change campaigners from Mrs May.

In June, the Prime Minister introduced the landmark legislation to the Commons which means ministers are legally obliged to hit the target.

It supersedes the former plan to cut emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050, following advice from the Committee for Climate Change.

"As the first country to legislate for long-term climate targets, we can be truly proud of our record in tackling climate change,” said the Prime Minister. 

“This country led the world in innovation during the Industrial Revolution, and now we must lead the world to a clear, greener form of growth.

"Standing by is not an option. Reaching net zero by 2050 is an ambitious target, but it is crucial that we achieve it to ensure we protect our planet for future generations."


At last month's G20, Mrs May also pledged the UK to contribute to the Global Fund to tackle AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. 

Averaging at £467 million a year, the outgoing PM told world leaders in Osaka to follow the UK’s lead and help save millions of lives worldwide.


Attention has also turned towards mental health at home with a beefed-up package announced to “overhaul” society’s approach to the illness.

It includes training for new teachers on how to spot signs of mental health issues; all NHS staff being “encouraged” to take suicide prevention training out of an existing £2 million government fund; extra cash for local authorities to deliver suicide prevention plans and update professional standards for social workers to increase their knowledge of mental health issues.

A £1 million pot was also awarded to the Office of Students to boost support at universities and colleges.

The bundle came coupled with a commitment to overhaul the Mental Health Act to make it “fit for modern society”. 

The Prime Minister also said a white paper will be published by the end of the year in response to key recommendations from an independent review of the Mental Health Act. 


Theresa May first announced plans for a new law to crack down on domestic abuse two years ago, but the accompanying bill only appeared in the final days of her time in office.

In a rushed bid to get Commons support and prevent it being shelved by her successor, the bill ramps up the definition of abuse to include “emotional” and “economic” for the first time.

It also sets up a new watchdog for victims and boosts powers handed to courts to stop perpetrators from contacting their victims.

According to the impact assessment published alongside the draft law, the measures for England and Wales will cost between £34 to £43 million per year once they are fully in force.


Having pledged to tackle society’s “burning injustices” on her first day in office, it was perhaps unsurprising that one of May's final acts as PM would be to strengthen attempts to do just that.

The new Office for Tackling Injustices will be tasked with holding the Government to account over its progress in dealing with inequality and unfairness.

It will focus on assessing the extent of inequalities across different economic backgrounds, ethnicity, gender, disability and sexual orientation.

It will be housed in the Cabinet Office alongside the Race Disparity Unit, the Office for Disability Issues – also newly-relocated from the Department of Work and Pensions – and the Government Equalities Office. 


Just 48 hours before leaving Number 10, May authorised the release of a government green paper containing a raft of measures aimed at encouraging fast food-loving Brits to mend their ways.

Among the suggested measures is a tax on sugary milk drinks – an initiative her successor Boris Johnson has already rejected.

The consultation document also laid out an ambition for England to go smoke-free by 2030, making smoke tobacco “obsolete” in favour of lower-risk products such as e-cigarettes.


A £10 million investment has also been made for a modern slavery research centre.

Set up in response to an independent review into the Modern Slavery Act, the new project carries on the PM’s mission to “shine a light on this hidden crime”. 

The Policy and Evidence Centre for Modern Slavery and Human Rights aims to collaborate with academics, businesses and charities to help eradicate the crime at home and abroad by 2030.


Rolling out the promises however has not been plain-sailing.

According to reports in the Sunday Telegraph, Mrs May had to back down on ambitions for a £27 billion cash boost for schools, after Philip Hammond refused to loosen the purse strings.

Given no formal announcement has come to fruition since the controversy, it seems unlikely this will be added to the legacy list.


Tory deputy chair Helen Whately praised the outgoing PM for her work to support women, and hopes she will be remembered for the “good stuff”.

“Both in her time as Home Secretary and Prime Minister, she’s pushed a host of agendas which others wouldn’t have made such a priority, I think the Domestic Abuse Bill is a fantastic example of that also all that she’s done to support mental health agenda,” she told PoliticsHome.

“I do hope she will be remembered for trying to tackle some of these often overlooked questions that particularly affect people who are worst off and struggling in our society.

“There’s always a risk the bad news overshadows the good news…but I hope people will remember her for all the good stuff she’s done and also for being extraordinary, courageous and tenacious in trying to deliver Brexit with almost impossible numbers in Parliament.”

Tory backbencher Alan Mak also said her net-zero emissions commitment will be a “key aspect” of her legacy.

He added: “Theresa set out an Industrial Strategy that laid the foundations for Britain to be a world leader in science and new technologies in the future which is key for our economy. 

“One of her final acts was to commit Britain to net zero emissions by 2050 and this is will be a key aspect of legacy. 

“When we look back in years to come, this is an important landmark that should galvanize other countries to follow Britain's lead."    

PoliticsHome previously revealed that some of Mrs May’s party colleagues had warned her not to push through her spending spree during her last days in office, with one minister telling this site: “It's just very selfish and a clear attempt to tie the hands of her successor. She should not be doing it, it's as simple as that."

Meanwhile, Green MP Caroline Lucas told PoliticsHome: “Some fine words but no action.

“This sums up Theresa May’s record in so many areas.  In the closing weeks of her premiership, she has committed Britain to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 but her government’s policies are doing nothing to bring this about.  In many areas, they have actually taken us in the opposite direction. 

“Similarly on mental health, we’ve heard pledges, goals and warm words.  But these do not compensate for a track record of neglect and underfunding of child mental health and children’s services. Good ideas need to be backed up with resources.  

“Training teachers to spot signs of mental ill-health has value, but where are the support services they can refer to? Years of under-funding has meant vital support like school counsellors have been cut. Head teachers need adequate budgets so they can provide the support children need.”

Lib Dem MP Tom Brake also described Mrs May’s legacy as an “empty vessel and vacuum”.

The party’s Brexit spokesperson told this site: “Brexit paralysed her Government and destroyed any ambition she had to tackle ‘burning injustices’.

“Any eleventh hour moves she makes to try and bolster her legacy will never wash away a picture of a Tory Government without a plan, blowing billions on a no-deal Brexit nobody voted for, and neglecting the real challenges the UK faces.”

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