When Gordon Brown became prime minister, he promised to end the spin of the Blair era – which, of course, was a piece of spin in itself. Theresa May’s allies now say she will end David Cameron’s “government-by-headline”. We are told there will be fewer announcements, but when they come – after the new PM has carefully weighed up the decision – they will be bigger and better.
In theory, May is right. In practice, it will be very hard to achieve. The media abhors a vacuum and will always fill it. Inevitably, speculation is already rife about the PM’s intentions on Brexit. Some Europhile MPs and peers cling to the hope that Brexit will never happen, that May knows we will struggle to get a good trade deal with the EU and will pull back to avoid damaging the economy. They took heart from reports at the weekend that she might delay triggering Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which starts the formal two-year negotiation on the UK’s exit terms.
I think the pro-EU optimists will be disappointed, and expect that May will invoke Article 50 next January or February. Why? Because the rest of the EU is already furious enough about what it sees as foot-dragging in London. Other EU leaders have already given May extra time. When the Conservative Party leadership election was due to end in September, she planned to trigger Article 50 early next year and did not bring the date forward when she became PM in July. Any further delay might be counterproductive for Britain. Although the European Commission and May’s EU counterparts cannot force us to start formal negotiations, they can make life very difficult for us when we eventually do. And it is “when,” not “if”.
Some Europhiles see a ray of hope because May backed Remain in the referendum and has said she now wants the closest possible economic relationship with the EU. But they shouldn’t translate that into hoping that the PM is secretly planning to keep us in the EU club.
When she says “Brexit means Brexit”, she means it. She doesn’t know what it means yet, but that’s a different matter. May believes that her task is to make a success of the decision taken by the public in June. The mantra in Downing Street is: “We’re all Brexiteers now.” The view is that it would be political suicide to ignore the referendum decision or try to work round it, and would only compound the alienation from the political class that led to the Brexit vote in the first place.
The 6 most important issues Theresa May needs to address
The 6 most important issues Theresa May needs to address
The big one. Theresa May has spoken publicly three times since declaring her intent to stand in the Tory Leadership race, and each time she has said, ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ It sounds resolute, but it is helpful to her that Brexit is a made up word with no real meaning. She has said there will be ‘no second referendum’ and no re-entry in to the EU via the back door. But she, like the Leave campaign of which she was not a member, has pointedly not said with any precision what she thinks Brexit means
2/6 General election
This is very much one to keep off the to do list. She said last week there would be ‘no general election’ at this time of great instability. But there have already been calls for one from opposition parties. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2010 makes it far more difficult to call a snap general election, a difficulty she will be in no rush to overcome. In the event of a victory for Leadsom, who was not popular with her own parliamentary colleagues, an election might have been required, but May has the overwhelming backing of the parliamentary party
Macbeth has been quoted far too much in recent weeks, but it will be up to May to decide whether, with regard to the new high speed train link between London, Birmingham, the East Midlands and the north, ‘returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ Billions have already been spent. But the £55bn it will cost, at a bare minimum, must now be considered against the grim reality of significantly diminished public finances in the short to medium term at least. It is not scheduled to be completed until 2033, by which point it is not completely unreasonable to imagine a massive, driverless car-led transport revolution having rendered it redundant
4/6 Heathrow expansion
Or indeed Gatwick expansion. Or Boris Island, though that option is seems as finished as the man himself. The decision on where to expand aviation capacity in the south east has been delayed to the point of becoming a national embarrassment. A final decision was due in autumn. Whatever is decided, there will be vast opprobrium
5/6 Trident renewal
David Cameron indicated two days ago that there will be a Commons vote on renewing Britain’s nuclear deterrent on July 18th, by which point we now know, Ms May will be Prime Minister. The Labour Party is, to put it mildly, divided on the issue. This will be an early opportunity to maximise their embarrassment, and return to Tory business as usual
6/6 Scottish Independence
Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP are in no doubt that the Brexit vote provides the opportunity for a second independence referendum, in which they can emerge victorious. The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood has the authority to call a second referendum, but Ms May and the British Parliament are by no means automatically compelled to accept the result. She could argue it was settled in 2014
May also knows that, with a tiny Commons majority of 12, she needs to reassure Tory backbenchers who backed Leave, who will threaten insurrection at any hint of backsliding. We have got used to our political leaders dissembling and spinning, but with May what you see is what you get.
However, her approach will not make Brexit plain sailing for her. There choppy waters ahead already loom into view. Some Tory MPs wonder whether May’s appointment of the Three Brexiteers – Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, David Davis as Brexit Secretary, and Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary – was too clever by half. Inevitably, a turf war has broken out, with Fox trying to poach the economic diplomacy function of Johnson’s department for his own empire. It was seen as a “try on” in Whitehall and rebuffed by Boris.
It won’t be the last such skirmish. May’s allies are not impressed and she will probably bang the Three Brexiteers’ heads together when she returns from her holiday. “We need to play as a team, not as individuals,” said one May ally. The PM will chair the crucial Cabinet committee on Brexit, and the Three Brexiteers may find they have less influence over what Brexit will actually mean than they now hope.Reuse content