Theresa May has thoroughly cleaned house — and given Britain's Conservative Party a firmer grip on power than ever.
- By Alex MassieAlex Massie writes for the Spectator, the Times, and other publications.
British politics is not an arena for the faint of heart. Theresa May has only been prime minister for 24 hours, and already the David Cameron era seems long ago. The new prime minister has wasted no time in making her mark. This is a new government that must define itself against its predecessor while also accommodating itself to a changed world in which much is uncertain. Britain’s decision to leave the European Union ended one set of political careers, but it has been the making of May.
As just the second female British prime minister, comparisons with Margaret Thatcher are as obvious as they are unavoidable. Already the tabloid headlines scream “Maggie May.” We shall see how apt that proves. In one sense, the comparison is appropriate: May cheerfully concedes that, in the words of the veteran Conservative Party MP Kenneth Clarke, she can be a “bloody difficult woman.” This, she says, is something Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, is about to discover for himself. Brexit means Brexit, and there will be no turning back.
The new prime minister’s cabinet appointments confirm as much. David Davis, a veteran right-winger who served as Europe minister in John Major’s government, will oversee the tortuous task of exiting the EU. Meanwhile, Liam Fox, another tribune of the right, will be responsible for negotiating trade deals with foreign countries. This will take time, not least since U.S. President Barack Obama warned that Brexit would automatically relegate Britain to the “back of the queue” in trade-negotiating terms.
Like Davis, Fox backed Brexit. So did Andrea Leadsom, the last of the five contenders May defeated en route to her Downing Street coronation. Leadsom’s reward is the environment portfolio. May herself was a “reluctant Remainer,” but her appointments go some way toward healing Tory divisions on Europe.
That is a question of party management and political mood music, however. The idea, much cherished by Tory Leavers such as Leadsom and Davis, that Britain is poised to become the Singapore of the West, an island nation reclaiming its ancient trading birthright, is a conceit yet to be proved by the realities of life after Brexit. And it is ultimately May’s vision that will count most of all. It is now her responsibility to describe an achievable vision for the country’s new era.
May’s headline appointment, of course, was giving London ex-Mayor Boris Johnson the plum position of foreign secretary. Guy Verhofstadt, the former prime minister of Belgium, tweeted that Johnson’s appointment suggested that “[c]learly British humour has no borders,” while Carl Bildt, the former Swedish foreign minister, said, “I wish it was a joke, but I fear it isn’t.”
Such concerns are easily understood. Johnson has made a career of casually insulting foreigners; the idea that he now represents Britain on the international stage is just the latest mind-boggling development in a month of mind-warping events. Just this year, he suggested Obama’s Kenyan parentage helped explain the American president’s alleged “ancestral dislike” of Britain. He has also compared Hillary Clinton to a “sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.” Clinton, he wrote, represents “everything I came into politics to oppose.” More recently still, he wrote a limerick about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that merits quoting in full:
“There was a young fellow from Ankara,
Who was a terrific wankerer
Till he sowed his wild oats
With the help of a goat
But he didn’t even stop to thankera.”
In truth, Johnson’s appointment is less significant than it might appear. Shorn of responsibility for EU affairs and trade, the Foreign Office is not the great office of state it once was. Johnson’s role will be more than merely ceremonial, but the heavy foreign-policy lifting will be done elsewhere and by other, more trustworthy, people. Making Johnson foreign secretary, however, satisfies May’s need to give a “big” job to a prominent Brexit campaigner while also, conveniently, ensuring one of her biggest rivals is forced to spend significant time overseas and far away from Westminster.
Still, in just 24 hours, the new prime minister has dismantled her predecessor’s legacy. All of Cameron’s closest allies have been sacked. The most notable casualties being George Osborne, his chancellor of the Exchequer, and Michael Gove, the former justice secretary whose surprise decision to run for the leadership himself torpedoed Johnson’s own prime ministerial ambitions. Cameron, and the “Cameroons,” have quietly but ruthlessly been purged. They are yesterday’s men. Tomorrow belongs to May.
Speaking outside her new Downing Street residence, May promised a new kind of government, one that went further than simply patching up the divisions inside the Conservative Party. Her government, she said, “will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws, we will listen not to the mighty, but to you. When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritize not the wealthy, but you.”
The message was clear: May intends to lead a “one-nation” government in which “when it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few. We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.” The prime minister plainly intends to occupy the center of British politics, capitalizing on the void left by a Labour Party opposition that, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, has moved sharply to the left.
Corbyn himself now faces a leadership challenge as polls report just 23 percent of voters think he “has what it takes to be a good [prime minister].” (By contrast, 55 percent of voters think May can be an effective premier.) Labour’s own crisis gives May an opportunity to entrench the Tories as Britain’s dominant party of government once again. The possibility Labour might split can no longer be avoided. If, as most observers expect, Corbyn survives his latest crisis, Labour moderates may be tempted to form a new party of the center-left, leaving Corbyn to lead a smaller, hard-left party more interested in changing “the way we do politics,” as Corbyn puts it, than winning elections.
That is the great prize awaiting May. Even so, if the opportunity is clear, so too are the risks. She leads a government with a working majority of just 16 votes. That alone ensures the margin between parliamentary success and failure is precious thin. Moreover, the urgent need to define the terms and meaning of Brexit is likely to overshadow every other matter of business.
The economic costs of Brexit also cast a long shadow. Philip Hammond, the new chancellor of the Exchequer, will not balance the budget in this parliament. Indeed, Britain’s budget deficit is forecast to increase to help ease the immediate costs of Brexit. A recession seems probable, and it will, the country may feel, be a recession of choice, not simply an unfortunate but inevitable turn of the economic cycle. On the contrary, it will be a recession imposed on Britain by the British people themselves, a recession made and nurtured by a Conservative Party that privileged leaving the EU over Britain’s economic well-being. This, however, is deemed a price worth paying for regaining parliamentary control over Britain’s borders. It remains to be seen whether voters will continue to think of this as a good bargain.
That there has been a changing of the guard, however, is not in doubt. May’s government will look and feel very different from that of her predecessor. The old boys are out, and a new woman is in charge. It is a truism that any politician lacking flair and pizazz is automatically assumed to major in technocratic competence, but May’s reputation while at the Home Office, where she served for six years, offers some evidence that, in this instance, it is a merited estimation.
The new prime minister is, as she often says, the daughter of a Church of England vicar and the granddaughter of a regimental sergeant major. Public service, she insists, is in her bones. But if her predecessor was unmistakably a member of the patrician officer class, her own background is that of the grammar-school-educated, non-commissioned-officer class. Her party will offer a common-sense conservatism and the leadership of a woman who knows what she wants and who, once she has chosen her course, will not be diverted from it. The challenges are formidable, but so too is the opportunity.
The streets of Westminster are strewn with still-smoldering political wreckage after the most remarkable few weeks anyone can remember. The country thirsts for a period of comparative calm and stability. If May can deliver that, if she can preside over a return to normalcy, she will have achieved something significant. An anxious country may even thankera.
A difficult woman, perhaps, but then these are bloody difficult times.
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