Column / Brexit Briefing
May: Some calm after the storm
By Benjamin Fox
After three weeks of political storms comes relative calm. Theresa May will become prime minister on Wednesday (13 July) bringing an end to a frenzied period of blood-letting without parallel.
What May offers is stability – a safe pair of hands.
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That instant barometer of opinion – the financial markets – were encouraged by May’s coronation, and by her insistence that there is no need to hold a general election.
However, given that Labour’s own leadership contest will begin on Tuesday (12 July), after Angela Eagle formally challenged Jeremy Corbyn, and threatens to plunge the party into civil war, the Conservatives should expect an easy victory if they did go to the country.
Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal – after a clumsy interview in which she suggested she was a better choice as prime minister because, unlike Mrs May, she had children, prompted a weekend of hostile press coverage – meant a sudden conclusion to a contest that was scheduled to last until September.
In a short speech outside Parliament on Monday (11 July) May emphasised “the need, of course, to negotiate the best deal for Britain in leaving the EU, and to forge a new role for ourselves in the world.”
“There will be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it by the back door, and no second referendum,” she stated.
Speaking on Sunday (10 July), before Leadsom’s withdrawal, May’s campaign manager Chris Grayling said that the starting gun on Article 50 will be fired before the end of the year, adding that “there is then a two-year time frame and the next general election is 2020. So I can't see any circumstances in which we wouldn't have [left the EU] by 2020.”
What the ‘new role’ will look like is unclear, but at least the process will now start. Under a May government, the UK is far more likely to broker a Norway-style agreement with single market access, something very close to freedom of movement, and an EU budget contribution.
The government will now have the summer to begin to draw up a mandate.
Ken Clarke, the pro-European Tory grandee, described May as "a bloody difficult woman" which only served to strengthen her position.
The comparisons to German chancellor Angela Merkel are inevitable. Like Merkel, May is a survivor and has shown little interest thus far in ideology. She has no charisma to speak of and has never sought to build up a personal following in the Tory party.
In a bid to balance the party, May has promised to set up a government department for Brexit, headed by a Leave campaigner, alongside the Foreign Office. The decision on who will lead the Brexit talks with EU leaders is probably the most important one May will take.
Grayling, a Leave campaigner who rallied May’s campaign among the Conservative MPs, is best placed to head the Brexit department.
No top Brexiter in cabinet
Elsewhere, while May will have to balance Remain and Leave campaigners across government, her stroll to victory reduces the need to make concessions.
In the meantime, it is worth considering the unexpected demise of the leading Brexiters. In less than three weeks since their shock referendum victory, the three leading Conservative Leavers have either been assassinated or self-destructed.
It is now hard to imagine that any of Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom will be part of the top Brexit negotiating team, which is good news for the rest of Europe, not to mention the UK. None of them is likely to get a top ministerial job. At least one of them will probably miss out altogether.
Their relative weakness will increase the pressure on May from the right-wing press to ensure that there is no back-sliding on Brexit.
Honeymoon won’t last long
Having unleashed political, constitutional and economic turmoil, the Brexiteers’ mess will have to be cleaned up by other people.
For the moment, Theresa May has united the Conservative Party and its media cheerleaders. But the honeymoon won’t last long.
David Cameron is the third Conservative prime minister in a row to be toppled or undermined as a result of internal party divisions on the EU. Despite the British people voting for Brexit, it will take years to finalise the divorce and broker a new deal with the EU.
Like her predecessor, the EU will dominate May’s premiership and, if history is any judge, is likely to break it.