New PM Theresa May faces unparalleled UK political challenges

New PM Theresa May faces unparalleled UK political challenges

The economic and political risks facing the British government are numerous. The UK’s untested Prime Minister, Theresa May, could not have assumed office at a more difficult moment.

Events are moving at breakneck speed in British politics. Following the narrow victory for the Leave Campaign in the Brexit Referendum on 23 June, David Cameron has resigned, a Tory leadership race exploded into life — replete with Machiavellian manoeuvring — to leave Theresa May the new incumbent of Number 10. The Prime Minister promptly exercised a ruthless Cabinet reshuffle to assert her authority.

What, however, might Theresa May’s leadership mean for the British political and economic environment?

There have been few moments in contemporary British history when a new Prime Minister has been faced with such a daunting brief. May’s government will be preoccupied with negotiating how Britain will leave the European Union, as she has firmly declared that “Brexit means Brexit.”

One of Prime Minister May’s first moves was to appoint a trio of Brexiters to head the leave process: David Davis, Liam Fox and — raising more than a few eyebrows — installing Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. On past form both Fox and Johnson are gaffe-prone, while Davis has made some startlingly optimistic pronouncements on the UK’s likely diplomatic clout.

Nevertheless, the appointments will in effect mean that Brexiters “own” the process and provide the Remain-camp Prime Minister with some cover when compromises are inevitably made.

Is Theresa May a liberal?

For someone who was Home Secretary for six years, and a prominent position in the Conservative Party for much longer, little is known of Theresa May’s political inclinations. The Prime Minister’s first speech upon taking office — albeit not usually a useful guide to future policy — struck an inclusive note, saying she would fight against “burning injustice.”

Nick Timothy, May’s joint chief of chief, has previously made the case for “compassionate conservatism.” Timothy wrote this year that he ‘joined the Conservatives because they did not just talk the language of social mobility: they made it happen, and they made it happen for me’.

The Economist described May as a “calm… no-nonsense conservative… preparing to seize the centre ground vacated by the Labour opposition.” Notwithstanding these flourishes the new Prime Minister has shown little that marks her out as a liberal.

As Home Secretary, May was an enthusiast for the “Snooper’s Charter” and repeatedly advocated repealing the Human Rights Act. Some economic liberals have also begun to sense interventionist danger over May’s comments regarding plans for an industrial strategy.

Yet, that the Prime Minister may not be an ideologue is in keeping with most of her Tory predecessors and could mean she will be a flexible policy-maker. History aptly demonstrates the Conservative Party’s deftness in retaining power.

Another General Election?

Theresa May, as many commentators and her Conservative colleagues have already pointed out, does not need to face the electorate in a General Election until 2020. This sounds logical now, with voter fatigue sure to have set in after this year’s referendum and with the last election fought only in May 2015.

Nevertheless, not seeking a mandate will gradually erode May’s legitimacy as Prime Minister. James Callaghan, Prime Minister in the late 1970s, and more recently Gordon Brown, faced mounting criticism as ‘unelected’ Prime Ministers when things started – inevitably – to go wrong.

To be certain, plenty could go wrong for Theresa May. The economy faces a prolonged period of uncertainty, growth projections have been revised downwards, sterling is under pressure and investment decisions likely to be delayed.

Deficit targets have already been scrapped, and a vicious circle of mounting debt, lower growth, and even inflation may loom. The integrity of the UK itself is likely to come under strain.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said the situation puts her in a “strong position,” wielding a veto over the UK’s Brexit negotiating position while keeping a second independence referendum firmly on the table. Fortunately for the Prime Minister, the opposition Labour Party are currently in a death spiral, relieving the pressure on her in Westminster.

Theresa May’s government will be submerged in the Brexit process. The Prime Minister is likely to be under pressure from all sides—from Tory Brexiters disgruntled when they realise that referendum promises are unlikely to materialize, to the 16 million voters who voted to remain in the EU. European leaders, anxious to prevent contagion across the EU, will also be a source of tension — not to mention business leaders who want to retain access to the single market.

Brexit has opened a Pandora’s box that will be difficult to contain. Theresa May will need to maintain her historically steady hand in order to navigate the storm that lies ahead.

Categories: Europe

About Author

Robert Ledger

Robert Ledger is an analyst on European affairs, with a particular focus on the Balkan and Caucasus regions. He has an MA in International Relations from Brunel University and a PhD in political science from Queen Mary University London.