Theresa May has been keen to stress that she doesn’t want this country or her government to be defined by Brexit. In her first week as Prime Minister, she has moved quickly to show that she isn’t going to be continuity Cameron. Her reshuffle made the cabinet less posh and more suburban than her predecessor’s. She has suggested that grammar schools might be on the way back, and national-interest tests could be introduced for foreign takeovers. Things are changing fast.
May — and those around her — are modernisers. It’s just that they feel the previous modernisation was wrong. In May’s opinion, the Cameroons spent too much time trying to make the Conservative party seem acceptable in Notting Hill juice bars and not enough appealing to residents of two-bedroom semis in the West Midlands. It was no coincidence that May’s reorganisation of Whitehall saw ‘climate change’ disappear from the departmental list and ‘industrial strategy’ replace it.
The reshuffle also marked an attempt to create a government that more visibly champions hard work and aspiration. May’s warnings that politics is not a game and that decisions taken by government have real consequences for people’s lives suggest she sympathises with the caricature of her predecessors as game-playing public schoolboys.
She should enjoy this moment of trying to redefine the Tory party, and being able to focus on the home front: it won’t last long. When formal notice is served to Brussels of Britain’s intention to leave, EU matters are likely to consume her job.
The working assumption in Whitehall and Brussels is that the United Kingdom will leave the EU in January 2019 — a deadline which fits the EU budget cycle just now beginning. Given that the process triggered by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is meant to take two years, that end date implies it will begin in January. (It’s notable that a government QC has told the courts Article 50 would not be invoked this year.)
So the Prime Minister has about five months to go before Brexit really starts to dominate British politics. The first big question will be about the nature of the deal, and whether it will be possible to sell it to both the Tory party and the country. Those who would like to see ‘Brexit lite’ — i.e. Britain joining Norway in the European Economic Area — will be encouraged by the fact that, at a private hustings with Tory MPs, May talked of ‘controlling’ rather than ending free movement. But David Davis, Brexit’s chief negotiator, has made clear that he thinks full UK control of immigration policy is vital. Indeed, given the prominence accorded to free movement in the referendum campaign, it would be odd to agree a deal with the EU in which it continued.
Even many pro-EU Labour MPs now believe that free movement has to end — and that if it doesn’t, Ukip will win a slew of Labour seats in the pro-Brexit parts of the Midlands and the North. But whatever trade-offs are made between single-market access and immigration control, the resultant deal will have to be sold to the Tory party and the country — and it is hard to see how both could be satisfied.
One of May’s main challenges will be holding the UK together through this process. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is explicit in her desire to call a second independence referendum on the basis of keeping Scotland in the EU. But so far May has handled the Scottish question deftly. She has talked at length about her passion for the Union, she has already visited Scotland and Wales and — by making clear that the devolved administrations will help to shape the UK’s priorities in the exit negotiations — she has shown that her government in London is going to listen to all parts of the UK. It, perhaps, helps that one of May’s joint chiefs of staff in No. 10, Fiona Hill, is Scottish.
Certainly, Scottish Tories are pleased with how May’s promotion has gone down north of the border. One predicts that ‘she is not going to have the English problem to the same extent that David Cameron did’. They believe her commitment to the Union is absolute, while her view of Brexit is — they think after last week’s visit — pragmatic.
The other challenge for May is to deal with the economic consequences of Brexit. Attempting to judge Brexit on short-term disruptions is foolish: it will be more than a decade before we can really assess the decision. But the economy might be pounded hard for the next few years. Many firms will wait to see what the precise nature of the UK’s trading relationship with the EU is before making investments.
All of this means that May’s government will enter difficult times, and it has left some influential Tories wondering whether she was wise to be so brutal in her initial reshuffle. Allies of George Osborne are particularly irritated by his treatment, and feel that he was denied the chance to leave office with dignity. One former cabinet minister close to Osborne complains that the new Prime Minister ‘dressed him down’ when she sacked him. He warns that ‘in mafia terms, George has been disrespected’. Interestingly, Osborne has told friends that he intends to stay in politics. As one of them puts it, ‘The wheel is turning rather quickly these days.’
Some loyalist Tory MPs argue that sacking so many ministers at once is not as risky as it looks given the parlous state of the opposition. This is certainly true if (as expected) Jeremy Corbyn defeats the challenge to his leadership of the Labour party. Yet by getting behind Owen Smith, a candidate of the soft left, Labour moderates have given themselves a chance, albeit a slim one, of bringing their party back from the brink.
May will enjoy a political honeymoon this summer. She will be able to set out her own personal vision of Toryism. But in the end, it will be Brexit—more than anything else—that dominates Downing Street for the next few years.