If 'Brexit means Brexit' then new Prime Minister Theresa May has a formidable task ahead of her

There are huge questions for Great Britain that remain painfully unanswered

Monday 11 July 2016 18:27 BST
It is expected that Theresa May will be made Britain's new Prime Minister on Wednesday
It is expected that Theresa May will be made Britain's new Prime Minister on Wednesday (AFP/Getty)

If Theresa May can make it unscathed through the next 48 hours, so the Queen can arrive back in London to invite her to form a Government, then she will indeed be Britain’s second female Prime Minister. For the record books, she will also be the first Conservative leader to take office without an election since 1963, and, at 59, the oldest premier to take office since James Callaghan in 1976.

Ms May now faces a series of formidable tasks. She has indicated she will not call an early general election, a move quite in line with her famously cautious character, so at least she will have the option serving out the remainder of this term of Parliament. Probably.

If Ms May does not also want to go down in history as one of most disastrous of premiers, the judgements she makes in the next few months will be crucial. Though always more serious-minded, practical and policy-oriented than most of her rivals, she does now need to do far more to demonstrate what her vision is for Britain outside the European Union. The people deserve it, and the economy requires it.

There are huge questions that remain painfully unanswered. Although a Remainer, Ms May will now have to square the many circles created by the Brexit camp during the referendum campaign.

Will it be possible for Britain to have access to the Single Market without conceding free movement of people? If not, then where does the balance of advantage and the compromise lie?

Will we be able to sell our banking services, cars, foodstuffs, architecture and much else into an EU where we refuse to make any contribution to its budgets? Can we be sure these will be in principle resolved before she activates Article 50?

Some would prefer it if the incoming Prime Minister used her credentials as a Remain advocate (albeit a sceptical one) to offer the British people, in due course, a proper choice between a concrete Brexit package and the existing position of Britain as a full member state of the EU. She seems to have ruled that out, at least rhetorically, with her catchphrase “Brexit means Brexit”, but she is a wise and honourable enough leader to want to put the British interest first. A fresh referendum would be one way of gaining some assent to the largest constitutional change in decades in a nation bitterly and almost evenly divided on the question.

Then there is the future of the United Kingdom itself. Assuming Ms May does not fall into the category of secretly wishing Scotland would just float away to ensure permanent Conservative government in England, then here she has another migraine.

In truth, as an English politician elected on the basis of English votes and representing a party still widely loathed in Scotland, she can probably do relatively little to move that debate along. Her able counterpart in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, will have an uphill struggle to win a vote for Scotland staying in the UK, especially if we do not know what the Brexit deal is. Trying to craft a deal that retains for Scotland, as an exception in the UK, some benefits of EU membership while still heading for the Brexit will be one of the most important tasks of a May administration.

Ms May will also have to deal with analogous problems in Northern Ireland. Again she will have to collaborate with all the interested parties in the north and in the Republic of Ireland to make the best of a bad mess. From what we have seen of her approach and because of the obvious sensitivities over this issue, she cannot afford to be “difficult” with these customers.

Theresa May will not be running the Government alone. She will create her own style, and appears inclined to use traditional Cabinet government machinery rather than the “sofa” government of, say Tony Blair. She will be less cliquey than David Cameron. The Notting Hill “set” are out.

But she has the tricky task now of apportioning portfolios to her various rivals, some of whom have not impressed in their leadership campaigns. Few outside her parliamentary fan club would care if Andrea Leadsom had to wait a little longer for promotion to the Cabinet. It is difficult to envisage, as it has been all along, what the ideal job for Boris Johnson might be if he was denied Number 10. He likes to be boss, as we all now know.

After David Cameron’s valedictory Prime Minister’s Questions, Ms May will be jousting with Jeremy Corbyn (at least for the time being), two reluctant Remainers together. She would be wise to abandon her predecessor’s counter-productive “Flashman” habit of bullying and insulting Mr Corbyn, and stick to the policies rather than telling him to do up his tie.

She could be faced across the despatch box by another woman, Angela Eagle – another first for our politics. We can but hope it will usher in a calmer era.

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