And so Theresa May emerges from the wreckage of Brexit as the last woman standing. It has become popular in the last few days to assume that May has risen to the premiership by virtue of ‘not being a shambles’. The myth that May did nothing while her rivals eliminated themselves one-by-one, George Osborne through his involvement in the Remain campaign, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove through political treachery, Andrea Leadsom through pure self-immolation, is a persuasive one, but it is far from the full picture.
May is in reality a far more formidable politician than these accounts might suggest. To have survived six years at the Home Office, a post which had claimed four high-profile ministerial casualties in the previous six years, and which had turned into a graveyard for political careers, is a significant achievement, whatever one thinks of the policies she implemented as Home Secretary. Quite apart from the fact that May has weathered the challenges of the Home Office far more successfully than many of her predecessors, her brief stint as Chairman of the Conservative Party (in 2002-3) will have equipped her with a better than average knowledge of how the grassroots function. May appears to command respect from MPs on either side of the referendum debate, despite (or perhaps because) she quietly supported Remain. Her campaign manager, Chris Grayling, was at the forefront of the Leave campaign.
However, the challenges facing May as Prime Minister are considerable. May has stated that she will respect the referendum result, insisting that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, but quite what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ means is open to question. The UK could leave the European Union in any one of a number of ways, from a ‘soft Brexit’ which would see the UK retain membership of the EEA and the Single Market (and, by extension, freedom of movement), to a ‘hard Brexit’ which would see the UK withdraw from most, if not all, European institutions. Of the options available, none is likely to satisfy the whole of her parliamentary party while at the same time representing position which is likely to be acceptable to the twenty-seven EU member states. To set out a credible negotiating position, and at the same time keep her parliamentary party onside, will take no little skill.
May will also have to face the wider consequences of Brexit, and in particular the implications for the British economy. The potential impact of Brexit should not be underestimated: the OECD recently compared the referendum result to the Japanese earthquake of 2011. Even if the British economy escapes a recession in 2017 – and most forecasters are predicting a slowdown – over the longer term there are considerable challenges to be overcome. Withdrawal from the European Union, of either the ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ variety, is likely to lead to a reduction in investment in the British economy, and May will need to think carefully about how to respond. If the UK were to withdraw from the Single Market the challenges will be even greater. Nick Crafts, Professor of Economic History at the University of Warwick, has estimated that EU membership has raised GDP by 10 per cent each year, most of which can be attributed to the benefits of Single Market membership. However, the quiet abandonment of George Osborne’s surplus target in the aftermath of the referendum will, in some senses, allow May rather more economic licence than her immediate predecessor enjoyed, and she might do worse than to adopt Stephen Crabb and Sajid Javid’s proposal for a £100bn infrastructure fund paid for by issuing new government bonds.
If the diplomatic and economic challenges which May faces are rather daunting, the electoral environment appears (at first glance) rather less threatening. With the Labour Party sinking steadily downwards in the polls, and presently engaged in another round of increasingly bitter internecine warfare which may lead to the end of the party in its present form, there appears to be little immediate electoral threat to the present government. While some Conservative MPs will undoubtedly be looking nervously over their shoulders at UKIP, every recent poll suggests that the Conservatives have a substantial (and growing) lead among voters. If May were to call a snap general election, as some observers have speculated, she could expect to be returned with an increased majority, and see the Labour Party reduced to its lowest ebb since 1935.
May therefore moves into No. 10 Downing Street as one of the most seasoned Prime Ministers of recent times, her party in a relatively secure electoral position, but facing economic and political challenges the magnitude of which few British politicians (with the possible exceptions of Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling) have faced in decades. May’s success in navigating these challenges will determine the shape of Britain for decades to come.
Homepage image of Number 10 Downing Street licensed under the OGL (Open Government License) v3.0.