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.