Britain’s new Prime Minister – Theresa May
A no-nonsense conservative has taken Britain’s helm. She should make the case for a minimalist Brexit
July 16th 2016 | The Economist
THEY campaigned to Leave, and they were as good as their word. Three weeks on from their referendum triumph, the politicians who led the charge for Britain to quit the European Union have fallen by the wayside in the race to replace David Cameron as prime minister. This week the last of the prominent Leavers, Andrea Leadsom, withdrew her candidacy after a few days’ media scrutiny revealed her to be fantastically ill-prepared. The job of steering Britain towards the EU’s exit doors has thus fallen to the only candidate left in the race: Theresa May, who campaigned to Remain.
Mrs May’s path to power was easier than that of most prime ministers, but her time in office will be the hardest stint in decades (see article). Extricating Britain from the EU will be the diciest diplomatic undertaking in half a century. The wrangling at home will be no easier: whatever divorce settlement Britain ends up with is likely to be deeply unsatisfactory even to those who voted to Leave. Popular anger will not be soothed by the recession into which the country is probably heading. It will take a gifted politician to lead Britain through this turbulent period.
Last woman standing
Is Mrs May up to it? The gormlessness of her rivals flatters her. But she has real qualities: a Merkelian calm, well suited to counter the chaos of the moment, and a track record of competence that increases the likelihood of an orderly withdrawal from the EU. Her first speech as prime minister—in which she promised to fight the “burning injustice” faced by the poor—suggests she has correctly read the mood of those who voted against the establishment and for Brexit, and is preparing to seize the centre ground vacated by the Labour opposition.
Her effortless victory presents a tactical problem. Without a proper leadership contest or general election, Mrs May lacks the seal of approval of her party’s members or the public. She has ruled out a snap election—rightly, since there is only so much political drama the country can take (in any case Labour, engulfed in civil war, is in no shape to fight one). Yet her lack of a mandate will be used against her, especially by Brexiteers. When Mrs May eventually returns from Brussels with a deal that falls short of the Brexit fantasy that voters were mis-sold, expect those in the Leave camp to cry treachery. To head off such accusations she has already given plum cabinet jobs to some unworthy Brexiteers, notably Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. In negotiations she may be unwilling to give ground to the EU even when it is in Britain’s interest.
The European divorce proceedings will dominate her government. The first decision is when to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, the legal mechanism by which Brexit begins. Fortunately, Mrs May seems to be in no hurry. Britain needs to settle its own position before firing the starting gun on negotiations, which will take months to do properly. Delay will also give EU politicians time for reflection, raising the chances of sensible compromise.
The single biggest call of her premiership will be what variety of Brexit to aim for. At one end of the spectrum is a “soft Brexit”: full membership of the single market, or something close to it, in return for retaining the principle of free movement of people. At the other is a “hard Brexit”: a clean break, sacrificing membership of the single market for full control over how many and which EU nationals can move to Britain. This newspaper favours minimal restrictions on migration in return for maximum participation in the single market; even those less enthusiastic than we are about immigration should shudder at the economic damage from serious barriers to a market that buys nearly half of Britain’s exports.
Mrs May’s thinking on this trade-off is unknown, but there are ominous signs. As home secretary she cut immigration at the expense of the economy—limiting visas for fee-paying university students, for instance. She has been unnervingly reluctant to guarantee the status of the 3m EU citizens already in Britain. And during the refugee crisis last summer she claimed, outrageously, that under Labour the asylum system had been “just another way of getting here to work”.
Her domestic economic plans, though only sketched, include some progressive ideas. She has vowed to tackle vested interests and ramp up competition. Her promise of a splurge on infrastructure is sensible. So is a vow to make shareholders’ votes on bosses’ pay binding. But there are hints of a preference for meddling over markets, for example in her suggestion that the government should be readier to stop foreign takeovers of British firms. As Britain gives up its prized link with Europe, it will need all the foreign capital it can get. The “proper industrial strategy” she has called for is too often a synonym for empty or bad ideas.
The Home Office never made a liberal of any minister. But it instils a reverence for order, which could make Mrs May think twice before slashing ties with the EU. Membership gives Britain access to shared security resources, from Europe-wide arrest warrants to pooled information on airline passengers and criminal records. During the campaign Mrs May pointed out that British police will soon be able to check EU nationals’ DNA records in 15 minutes, down from 143 days. Although Britain pulled out of some EU justice initiatives two years ago, it hung on to others such as these because, in Mrs May’s words, they were “not about grandiose state-building and integration but…practical co-operation and information-sharing”.
That rationale applies to much of what matters in Britain’s relationship with Europe. The single market is not a romantic ideal but a way of letting companies trade across borders. Free movement allows British firms and universities to recruit workers and students more flexibly, and lets Britons work and study abroad. These are the practical arguments for negotiating a minimalist Brexit—and their urgency will grow as Britain’s economic predicament worsens. Mrs May seems to be no liberal, but we hope she will champion the conservative case for staying close to Europe.