In her final interview before stepping down next week, the outgoing Prime Minister insists she did “everything” possible – including sacrificing her job – to try to get her EU withdrawal deal “over the line”. She pledges she will be “absolutely” loyal to her successor, expected to be her arch-rival Boris Johnson, when she becomes a backbench MP again after 21 years on the political frontline. But she also warns that the feuding Tories must unite to deliver Brexit at last to save the country from the threat of Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10.
Mrs May spoke to the Daily Express in the Downing Street private office she will relinquish on Wednesday afternoon when she visits the Queen at Buckingham Palace to formally offer her resignation after three tumultuous years as premier.
In the exclusive interview on Thursday – her last before she steps down – the Prime Minister said she expects to feel pride in her achievements including committing an extra £20billion to the NHS “but disappointed that I couldn’t do more” when she walks out of Number 10 on her final day.
She said: “We need to deliver Brexit. I still think the best way to do that is with a good deal and a deal that delivers on what people wanted in a referendum.
“People talk about second referendums – no! We need to deliver on the first referendum. We need to show people we will do what they wanted, take back control of their money, borders and laws.”
Mrs May bristles at being reminded of how she agreed to a deal with Brexiteer Tories in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group of MPs for her to set a resignation timetable in return for their support for her Brexit deal.
She said: “People said if I did that, the votes would come for the deal. They didn’t. I suppose that’s politics.
“I did everything I could to get the deal over the line. When Parliament objected to certain aspects of the deal, I went back to the EU not just once but several times to get changes; I got changes. At the end of the day, I put my job on the line.
Theresa May said she expects to feel pride in her achievements
“I was willing to do that, because what matters as prime minister is making decisions that are in the national interest and I like to think of myself as a patriotic politician who puts the country’s interests first.
“For me, finding a way of getting a deal over the line was the most important thing and so I was prepared to step down, to give up my premiership.”
Mrs May admitted her biggest error over Brexit was miscalculating the willingness of many MPs to defy the yearning of voters for an end to the parliamentary deadlock over the issue.
She said: “I’d assumed everybody who had campaigned for Brexit would then support it in Parliament.
“But what happened was we got into a situation where Parliament became polarised with those who had a particular view of Brexit and those who just wanted to stop it and that was difficult.”
Mrs May said her husband Philip May had been a “rock” who had provided stability and support throughout the turmoil of the parliamentary warfare over Brexit.
“He has been hugely important to me. I’ve described him as my rock. Throughout my political career he’s been hugely supportive of me and including in this role.
“He knew when to pour a scotch. You can just talk to him about other things, about normal life,” she said.
Obviously I’m staying on as an MP
Mrs May said she plans to take a break before considering what to do next.
“I’ve had a number of approaches. I’m a type-one diabetic, I’ve been asked if I’ll do more for a particular diabetes charity which I think I will do,” she said.
“There are some issues I’ve been campaigning on, working on through my time in politics that I’ll want to continue working on such as modern slavery.
“We’re going on holiday a few days before I step down – a few days of rest first, and then some walking. And then I’ll be able to set my mind to what I want to do for the future.
“Obviously I’m staying on as an MP. Anything I take on beyond that, I will want to make sure I’ve got the time to do it properly and not take on too much and not be able to deliver.”
Mrs May said she will be ready to advise her successor on her experience of running the country if requested.
“I’ll be a backbench MP under their leadership. My view is that it’s for the incoming prime minister to determine whether they want to speak to previous prime ministers on issues or not,” she said.
She said she had been grateful for the good wishes she had received from thousands of voters
“In 22 years in the Commons, I’ve only been on the backbenches for one year because after a year I was put on the frontbench. So it will be an adjustment. I haven’t thought about where to sit.”
Mrs May looked forward to having more time to deal with the detail of looking after her Maidenhead constituents.
“For me, the job of being an MP is hugely important, doing my constituency work is hugely important and obviously I will now be able to put a greater focus on that than I have been during my time as prime minister,” she said.
“I hope people will just accept that I’m on the backbenches, I’m another Conservative MP. I’ll be voting in the Commons; let’s see what issues come along.”
Asked if she would remain loyal to her successor whether it is Mr Johnson or Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, she said: “Absolutely – it is important that we have a Conservative government, particularly given the nature of the opposition that we have at the moment.
“I will be doing everything I can to make sure that we have a Conservative government.”
Referring to the collapse in Cabinet discipline as ministers squabbled under her leadership, the Prime Minister said: “Collective responsibility is very important for government. I believe overall that government needs to return to having that collective responsibility.”
She confirmed that she had voted in the final round of the leadership contest between the pair but had not told anyone – including her husband – who she chose to succeed her.
Mrs May said she had no plans to copy her predecessor David Cameron in buying a trendy shepherd’s hut as a hideaway to write her memoirs in, and was undecided about whether to pen a book about her time in Downing Street.
“I haven’t really given it that much thought. There are those who say that people who are involved with matters of national significance should put something down about how they saw it at the time for future historians to look at but I’ve not got any plans at the moment.
“I’m going to take some time off, and have a holiday and adjust to the new world,” the prime minister said.
Asked how she expects to feel on leaving Number 10, she said: “I think it will be a mixture. I will feel proud of things I have achieved as prime minister but disappointed that I couldn’t do more.
“I suspect everybody who steps down as prime minister has at the back of their mind the thought that they could have done more.”
Mrs May said she had been grateful for the good wishes she had received from thousands of voters.
“I’ve been touched by the huge amount of support I’ve received from the public. I’ve had gifts, flowers, letters and emails. The overwhelming view from members of the public has been – thank you for trying so hard.
“I tried everything to get a deal over the line. We could have left the EU on March 29. We could now be no longer a member of the EU if Parliament had chosen to come together and vote for that,” she said.