If the days after the June 23 Brexit vote reaffirmed Harold Wilson’s dictum that a week is a long time in politics, a fortnight can be more eventful. What started as a way to assuage Euroscpetic feelings in the Conservative party has led to the most politically turbulent phase in British politics in contemporary memory: a prime minister resigns; aspirations of two high profile Tories — Boris Johnson and Michael Gove — lie in tatters; the Labour leader faces a leadership contest less than a year in the post; the markets are on a rollercoaster; a Remainer is chosen as the prime minister to lead Brexit; no one quite knows how the future will pan out; and the once Great Britain is diminished in the eyes of many as ‘Little England’.
The saga of intrigues, opportunism and worse associated with the EU referendum can be expected to be soon reflected in popular culture, but behind the play in newspaper headlines on Theresa May taking over as the next prime minister — ‘Monday Mayhem’, ‘May Day’, ‘Maggie May’ – the task before her is daunting, to say the least. The second woman prime minister in British history may be set for an equally historic tenure as the first: Margaret Thatcher.
At stake is not only redefining Britain’s vision of itself outside the European Union and on the international stage, but also making the best out of a bad bargain by reconciling the many contradictions in negotiations to extricate Britain out of the EU. May does not want to trigger until the end of the year Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which sets out the two-year exit process. But European leaders have already signalled their impatience and want to get it over with and move on as soon as possible.
Brexit is the biggest item in May’s in-tray and every move will be closely followed by the millions who voted for it, as well as those who did not, particularly on immigration. At the heart of Brexit negotiations is the ambition to get the same trade access and facilities as a member of the EU but without agreeing to the ‘freedom of movement’ of EU citizens. The implications for London’s reputation as the capital of finance and business are enormous, with Paris and Frankfurt already beckoning banks and businesses to relocate. The task before May is not only to lead Britain out of the EU, but also unite the divided Conservative party and the dis-United Kingdom – demand is growing to hold another independence referendum in the pro-EU Scotland. Given her formidable reputation as a no-nonsense Home secretary and as one who coined the words ‘nasty party’ in 2002 while seeking to refashion her Conservative party, May appears to be the best person to deal with the situation. In other words, May is set for the test of a lifetime that she cannot afford to fail, come what may.