The image of a female leader once again taking residence at 10 Downing Street was always bound to evoke memories. After all, for eleven years, Margaret Thatcher had been prime minister of the United Kingdom. Regardless of their political leanings, people widely hailed her for her steely determination and tendency to get her way. “The Iron Lady”, Thatcher was dubbed by a Soviet journalist, a nickname quickly adopted by pundits across the globe.
Whether or not Theresa May is actually as similar to Margaret Thatcher as some have proposed is an open question. Hard-working and determined, yes- her record as Home Secretary is proof of that. Ruthlessness is also now a trait being prescribed to her; while a reshuffle of David Cameron’s cabinet was always expected, it was surprising to see the extent in which May chose to stamp her authority. By the end of the day it was clear barely any ministers had retained their former post; they had all either been promoted, moved sideways or sacked. In a single day May ended the political careers of no less than three Tory big beasts, Cameron’s right-hand man George Osborne among them. A penchant for risk-taking, something never before described as a May trait, was also made clear. Nothing else would explain the fact that May had made Boris Johnson the Foreign Secretary. (Boris, of all people!)
If this is a second Iron Lady in the making, however, is still unknown. But it would certainly help if May is. After all, her rise to the premiership is what many have described as a poison chalice. She would now be responsible for making Brexit work: the untangling of countless EU and UK laws and regulations, reworking the relationship between Britain and Europe, dealing with the economic side effects. There was a reason why David Cameron was heard singing on his penultimate day in office. He had just been relieved of an immensely difficult task.
Of course, she would have back-up. Three people in particular will be doing the heavy-lifting. David Davis,an outspoken advocate for leave, has been given the all-new position of Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. A self explanatory title. Liam Fox, vanquished rival and also a leave advocate, has also been given a newly invented post: Secretary of State for International Trade, responsible for negotiating new trade deals now that the EU’s no longer applied. And Boris Johnson, the famous mop-haired leave advocate in chief, has been made Foreign Secretary. Overall, the ‘three Brexiteers’ will be responsible for making what they wanted work. A smart ploy on May’s part, of course; should Brexit be a failure, May, who was herself a quiet remain campaigner, can shove the blame on the three Brexiteers.
However, it is also undoubtedly true that May herself would be responsible for Brexit. The potential Iron Lady will have to be working with Germany’s very own Iron Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and all the other European heads of state in trying to make Brexit happen. This is no easy task, and along the way May will have to make two major decisions. Neither will be simple to decide.
Firstly, May will most likely have to decide whether she wants to retain the UK’s access to the single market, or to give that up and instead have full control of immigration policy. One of the biggest reasons that the British electorate voted for leave was because they wanted to reduce immigration. On the other hand, one of the biggest reasons that the people who supported remain did so was because they wanted to ensue UK access to the European single market, which is highly important to the British economy. Despite Boris Johnson’s policy of “pro having cake and pro eating it”, European leaders have made it clear that the UK cannot have both. They could accept freedom of movement, one of the EU’s core principles, and retain single market access. Or they could do as the Brexiteers wanted: “take control” of their borders and immigration, and see their gateway to the single market close.
If May were to look at this purely on economic terms, the decision would not be difficult. Immigration tends to be a net economic benefit in a country with sluggish growth and an ageing population, as the UK is, and as such it would be better to retain access to the single market while also accepting freedom of movement. After all, access to a barrier-free market of five hundred million people is not something to be taken lightly. Politically speaking, however, this would be a disaster. The electorate had been vocal in their hostility towards immigration, and to choose the former route would be akin to remaining in the EU but losing all voting rights and influence within it. Therefore, what is more likely would be that the UK would have to swallow the most probable bitter result: access to the single market would be lost. It could still turn out differently, of course. Perhaps May and Davis are actually negotiating stars who will be able to negotiate a deal where the UK does go the Boris route: have its cake and eat it too. It remains hard to see this happening, however.
Secondly, May would have to decide what she wants to do with Scotland, which, as has been noted countless times in the press, overwhelmingly voted to remain. The Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, flying to Brussels and attempting to open negotiations of her own with EU leaders, has made it clear that she has no intention of seeing Scotland being pulled out of the EU against her will. And Sturgeon does have a point: many Scottish voters voted to remain in the UK so that they could remain in the EU, so why would they remain in the UK if that would mean being dragged out? Forcing Scotland out, Sturgeon claims, provides ample cause for calling a second independence referendum.
On this issue, May has been unclear where she stands. She has already declared that she will not trigger Article 50, which begins the formal process of leaving the EU, until a “UK-wide solution” can be found on a Brexit that is good for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. (On one hand it is easy to see this being an excuse not to implement Brexit in the end, on the grounds that a UK-wide agreement could not be reached, on the other hand not going through with Brexit may very well be political suicide). However, May has also noted that she is not very inclined to call a second independence referendum; after all, Scotland’s last referendum was barely two years ago. Overall, the situation is fragile. A false move, and not only the European Union will be broken up; the union of England and Scotland would also be gone. Therefore, May must decide carefully how she wants to proceed. How to placate both the wishes of EU-hostile England and Wales and EU-friendly Scotland at the same time? Is it at all possible? Or would it actually be wiser to turn back, even if that would probably mean the end of her government? She has said “Brexit means Brexit”, but what does that actually mean? She will need to make her decision.
It is a difficult task that lies ahead for Theresa May. Even a reincarnation of the Iron Lady would hardly find Brexit easy. Time will tell what decisions May and her three Brexiteers will make, and whether they have what it takes to successfully take the UK out of the EU.
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