Written by Tim Haughton.
For once the journalistic clichés were not over the top. The 23 June referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union was a seismic event, an earthquake which brought a dose of destruction to the British political scene: the Prime Minister resigned, allies knifed each other in the Conservative party leadership election, a new Prime Minister was appointed who then undertook one of the most extensive cabinet reshuffles of modern times with some eye-catching appointments and the leader of the Opposition lost a no confidence vote of his parliamentary colleagues. Even caffeine-fuelled journalists found it difficult to keep up with the speed of events.
Like all earthquakes tensions had been building for some time. Divisions in the Conservative party had been evident since the UK first applied to join the then European Economic Community in the 1960s, but since the late 1980s the party had begun to tear itself apart over Britain’s continuing membership of the EU. Whilst a sizeable slice of the Leave vote in the referendum came from traditional Conservative voters in the heartlands of rural England, the Leave side was bolstered by disaffected Labour voters. Both groups were mobilized and emboldened by Leave’s alluring slogan to ‘Take Back Control’. A significant proportion of traditional working class Labour voters, many of whom had stayed at home in previous elections or who had cast their votes for UKIP, used their votes to express their discontent with the state of the government and to give the political class a good kicking.
The Conservative party leadership election was shorter and more brutal than many expected. Michael Gove, who along with Boris Johnson, had been at the forefront of the Leave campaign, knifed his erstwhile colleague in the back, scuppering Johnson’s chances and ultimately destroying his own chances. Two other challengers, Stephen Crabb and the disgraced former Minister Liam Fox, failed to muster enough votes, meaning that the Conservatives looked set for a run-off between Theresa May and the former energy minister and Leave campaigner who had come to prominence during the referendum, Andrea Leadsom. However, an ill-judged newspaper interview in which she suggested motherless May was someone less suited to be prime minister than someone with children combined with doubts about her experience and the veracity of her c.v., provoked Leadsom to quit the race, leaving May the only candidate left standing. Indeed, Theresa May showed that sometimes the best way to win in politics is to just let your rivals destroy each other.
When David Cameron had announced his intention to resign on the steps of Downing Street on the morning of 24 June, he had expected to remain the resident of Number 10 until September, but with May’s coronation confirmed he stepped outside his front door on Monday 11 July to declare he would be gone by Wednesday. He was caught whistling on his way back into Downing Street. For all the disappointments of leaving office, he more than most will be aware of the new prime minister’s in-tray and his whistling may indicate the relief of having passed the buck.
No sooner had the Queen asked Theresa May to form a government, than the new prime minister began her reshuffle. Perhaps cognizant of the fact that a prime minister is almost never more powerful than when he/she is first appointed she swept aside key Cameron allies. Both Finance Minister George Osbourne and Justice Secretary Michael Gove were sacked. The once powerful Notting Hill set of Conservative modernizers had been confined to the backbenches and the rural pubs of Chipping Norton.
The most eye-catching appointment, however, was the decision to make the prominent Leave campaigner and former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary; a man who had insulted and offended many countries and politicians during his journalistic and political career. Whatever the long-term benefits or drawbacks of Boris being in charge of Britain’s relations with the rest of the world, it had the useful short-term benefit of dominating the news agenda as she made a raft of other appointments and prepared herself for government.
Speculation is a dangerous sport for political scientists. If we have learnt nothing else from the past month in British politics it should be that the speed and course of events can be very difficult to predict. With that caveat clearly stated I would suggest that three themes will come to dominate Theresa May’s government: Brexit, the future of the United Kingdom and Dealing with the Discontented.
During her short leadership election campaign and in her first comments as Prime Minister after returning from Buckingham Palace Theresa May declared that ‘Brexit means Brexit and we are going to make a success of it’. That statement calmed the Brexiteers in the Conservative party who might have harboured concerns that May, who had aligned herself – albeit not that enthusiastically – on the Remain side, might wobble. Her decision to appoint leading Brexiteers to prominent posts in the new government appeared to confirm her commitment. Not only was Johnson made Foreign Secretary, but two new government posts were created and given to leading Brexiteers: David Davis was put in charge of Brexit negotiations and the disgraced former minister Liam Fox was made International Trade Secretary.
Was May’s decision to put the Brexiteers in charge of finding a solution to the Brexit conundrum they had helped bring about a masterstroke? It is a high-risk strategy, but she probably had little choice. Anyone other than prominent Brexiteers would have provoked claims of betrayal from the fundamentalist wing of the Conservative party who had lined up behind Leadsom and Fox in the leadership election. Some conspiracy theorists suggest that they have been set up to fail allowing May an exit strategy from Brexit. That may be the case, but would a Teflon Theresa be able to distance herself from failure on the part of prominent politicians she appointed and entrusted with a task?
More significantly, what will matter for May is what she means in her tautological ‘Brexit means Brexit’ statement. The Leave vote was a vote against the status quo rather than a vote for something. There are many alternative scenarios of what Brexit might mean. Prominent Conservative Brexiteers such as Daniel Hannan are quick to dismiss talk of Norwegian or Swiss alternatives suggesting that there will be a British solution. It is probably true that any Brexit deal will be different to those struck with Olso or Bern, but it can be different in many different ways.
Two themes will be central to any negotiations: the degree of access to the single market and control over free movement. The key word here is ‘negotiations’. Theresa May and her ministers will have to strike a deal which is not only acceptable for her party and government (a hard enough task), but will be palatable for other Member States. Wisely, her first foreign trips were to Berlin and Paris, the two key players in any deal. But both Merkel and Hollande face elections next year. Their room for manoeuver is constrained by forces at home and Hollande, in particular, looks unlikely to remain in office.
Moreover, May’s government is not just engaged in an elaborate process involving the other 27 Member States, but has to contend with the differences of opinion within another Union: the United Kingdom. May stressed the importance of this union in her remarks in Downing Street after becoming Prime Minister and pointedly made her first visit as British PM to Edinburgh to visit Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister.
In the aftermath of 23 June’s result, especially given the contrasting levels of support for Brexit in Scotland and England, the first minister raised the possibility of another independence referendum for her homeland. Despite the fall in the oil price and the issue of euro membership likely to raise its head again, most analysts expect another independence referendum to deliver Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party’s cherished ambition. To counter that threat May signalled a desire to ensure the interests that all parts of the United Kingdom are represented in the Brexit negotiations by promising that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will not be triggered until a ‘UK-wide approach’ on negotiations has been agreed. Comforting words perhaps, but how such a UK-wide approach can be forged given the contrasting strong desire of Scottish politicians to stay in the EU and many Conservatives’ hard Brexit position, remains to be seen.
Even putting aside the complexities of the Brexit negotiations and the difficulties of a forging a UK-wide position, the referendum exposed deep divisions and highlighted major challenges. In the time honoured manner of new Conservative Prime Ministers, Theresa May, spoke of her desire to deal with burning injustice, helping the disadvantaged and governing in a One Nation spirit. Critics were quick to point out that whilst the world was absorbing the news that Johnson would be Britain’s leading diplomat, May was constructing one of the most right-wing cabinets of modern times.
The referendum was used by a significant number of voters as a means of venting their frustration with modern politics and the state of their lives and finances. The distant European Union and the migrants from other EU member states could be blamed for all ills. But the result of the Brexit referendum removes the EU bogeyman. Moreover, given the economic uncertainty resulting from the decision to leave the EU, it is unlikely to be boom time in the British economy for some time. Even with a radical social agenda designed to improve the lives of ordinary citizens it would be a tough task to strengthen the fraying bonds of trust between sections of the British electorate and those who govern over them. May has yet to outline in any detail how she intends to ensure Britain is a ‘country that works for everyone’, but it may prove to be a much harder task than negotiating exit from the European Union, especially with a small majority of a dozen in the House of Commons.
Politicians disappoint. Theresa May is highly unlikely to break this golden rule. She is a talented politician and a tough negotiator with a ruthless streak. Such characteristics bode well for finding a solution through the Brexit maze, but transcending the divisions of British society and empowering the discontented and disillusioned in uncertain economic times with a small majority in parliament looks like an almost insuperable task. To succeed she will need not just a large slice of luck, but something akin to the ‘force’ beloved by fans of a certain film franchise.
Tim Haughton is a Reader in European Politics at the University of Birmingham. This article was first published on the Who Governs Europe database and can be found here. Image credit: CC by Number 10/Flickr.