The Tory leadership contest has come to a shuddering halt. How a relatively new and completely untested MP could effectively end up going head to head for the most senior position in British politics, seemingly unprepared for the battle ahead, is beyond comprehension.
On Monday night, Tory MPs did not raucously celebrate Theresa May’s elevation in the Commons bars in the way they might have done if another figure had won. Rather, they quietly discussed the direction she’ll take the country in, what kind of Brexit she’ll go for and who will get what job under her. May does have a team of fiercely loyal aides. Her former advisers Nick Timothy, Fiona Hill and Stephen Parkinson all returned to the colours for her leadership bid. They represent another change in style. As one minister observes, “Compared to the Cameron people, these people are known to us. We have their phone numbers.” So should we feel gently cradled in the new and unfamiliar arms of May’s leadership?
The only question now is when will Article 50 be invoked? May has said 2017.
The entire events surrounding David Cameron’s departure and the leadership contest is really quite amazing, even by Tory standards of backstabbing and conspiracy (pardon the bias). I’m sure that Michael Gove can now only stare into the sky, wondering what’s happened and whether it can all be true.
Two weeks ago, when the EU leaders of the 27 member states met in Brussels, they made it clear to the British that after electing a new prime minister they expected to see movement on Article 50. That’s the article that triggers the formal opening of the EU/British negotiations on Brexit.
Theresa May’s unexpected coronation has suddenly moved Brexit to the foreground of EU politics much earlier than expected and will put pressure on all sides to get on with the divorce settlement. The only question now is when will Article 50 be invoked? May has said 2017. But the EU might not be happy with it being that long away. And that’s where the problem is – she can’t move on the issue until she has some idea of what the final settlement might look like.
The next year is a crucial one for our interests as a country to be highlighted and understood at every level in the EU. Until two days ago, two things were continuously mentioned in the EU institutions here in Brussels. One was that the British needed time to elect a new leader and set out a plan to leave the EU. Most EU leaders were keen to let the British mull over the implications of Brexit. Secondly, people here were still talking about a second vote, hoping beyond hope that if the British had experienced the cold winds of recession, they might think again and re-run the referendum. Such European hopes are well and truly dashed now. Although May was careful not to rule anything out when questioned, she was very clear to say at the same time that “Brexit means Brexit.”
There will be no early general election in the UK. May as the new prime minister will now have to unite her party quickly, divided after three decades of internal fighting over Europe, behind her leadership. But principally she will have to deal with the coming economic clouds that will face Britain from jobs to investment – the tailwinds of which will undoubtedly affect us.
David Cameron said he would restore cabinet government and proper consultation with colleagues. But once in office, he reverted to a more closed system of governing. It remains to be seen whether May really can alter her way of working. One area in which May must give ministers more freedom to manoeuvre is in agreeing new trade deals. One cabinet minister, who campaigned vigorously for Remain, said he had been taken aback by how many countries were interested in making trade deals with the UK. It is vital that our country is in a position to sign as many of these as it can as quickly as possible after leaving the EU. Early deals would create momentum for more and show that Britain was intent on being an open, outward-looking nation. That is one of the keys to making a success of Brexit.
It won’t be plain sailing as Britain’s isolationist position in a globalized and complicated world plays out. What will Theresa May do between now and the next scheduled general election in 2020?
I understand that May has also told colleagues that she still regards the last Tory manifesto as operative, and wants to carry on implementing it. One close ally of hers says that we will see ‘accentuations’ to the 2015 agenda rather than wholesale departures from it. But May appears to understand that the defeat for the status quo in the EU referendum was about more than Europe, that too many people feel that the economy doesn’t work for them. The great challenge for post-Brexit Britain is to make the country an attractive place for investment while dealing with the unacceptable faces of capitalism.
The Tory party turned to Theresa May because she was seen as offering stability and steadiness in a time of great uncertainty.
Another thing confirmed by the EU referendum was the divide between London, which voted heavily to remain, and the bulk of England which voted to leave. Part of this leave vote was motivated by a sense that their regions were being left behind. In her victory speech to Tory MPs on Monday, May emphasised the need to help parts of the UK that felt this way. If this is to be done, the quality of schooling in these areas will need to be addressed — 28 per cent of pupils in the north-east are going to schools that require improvement. In Blackpool and Doncaster, more than half of all pupils are at failing schools. That entrenches inequality in our country. The Tory party turned to Theresa May because she was seen as offering stability and steadiness in a time of great uncertainty. As the drama of the Tory leadership contest intensified, her cool temperament only became more appealing.
But she may well turn out to be an unexpected radical, ushering in changes to the UK that go far beyond Brexit.