Theresa May and the Brexit divide

‘She has none of the normal parliamentary and media constraints and is one of UK’s most powerful prime ministers…’

demonstration calling for the ''Brexit''
Demonstrators urge a quick Brexit a day before Supreme Court judges delivered their verdict on Theresa May's plans for an EU withdrawal [Hayoung jeon/EPA]

Glasgow, United Kingdom – When British prime minister Theresa May stood before the cameras to deliver her long-awaited major speech on Britain’s exit from the European Union earlier this month, millions across the country and the EU bloc watched in earnest.

The speech was billed as a chance to witness May’s first detailed statement on Britain’s Brexit future seven months after the nation voted by a slender 52-48 percent majority to revoke its decades-long membership of the institution.

After months of incessant speculation where discourse centred on whether Britain’s departure would constitute a so-called hard or soft Brexit, the Conservative Party leader announced her vision: not only would Britain be heading towards the EU exit door with gusto but it would also be leaving the EU single market and the EU customs union.

Even allowing for May’s proposal of retaining some kind of associate membership of the customs union, the British premier’s speech signalled that nothing less than a hard Brexit was in the offing.

“She’s clearly decided that the desire to reduce immigration was the reason the British voted for Brexit and therefore that must be the priority, from which everything else – most obviously leaving the single market – follows,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, told Al Jazeera.

Indeed, Leave voters, by and large, appeared to welcome the statement. So too did Britain’s Brexit-supporting press, which marked her speech down as the dawn of a new epoch.

British publications that had advocated a Remain vote in the June 23, 2016 referendum were not so enamoured. And for many of Britain’s Remainers – or, as some Leave voters have since dubbed them, “Remoaners”, on account of their widespread dissatisfaction with last summer’s shock poll result – their worst fears of a UK completely disengaged from the heart of the EU project were realised.

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Under her watch

Few British prime ministers have ever been faced with such a divided nation. Yet, on July 13 last year, it fell to the one-time UK home secretary to navigate a path that even the low-key Remainer herself must have once thought unlikely.

However, with the departure of UK prime minister David Cameron – who, despite winning a majority general election victory in 2015, resigned his position after the British public rejected his Remain agenda – May took on four of her Conservative colleagues and triumphed.

Boris Johnson, the eccentric one-time mayor of London, and figurehead of the successful Vote Leave campaign, was widely tipped to be the frontrunner for the post, but opted not to run.

“Perhaps the main reason Theresa May was the overwhelming choice of her party to become prime minister amid the upheaval of the referendum result last summer was her capacity to appear like a grown-up, to keep her head amid the chaos which seemed to take hold of the entire political class,” said writer Rosa Prince, author of forthcoming biography, Theresa May – The Enigmatic Prime Minister.

Such was May’s political achievements as part of the Conservative Party that secured power from Labour in 2010, that even before she won the premiership the Type-1 diabetes sufferer had already made history by becoming the longest-serving home secretary since Henry Matthews in 1892.

Indeed, carrying long-held political ambitions from an early age, May attended the University of Oxford like the UK’s only other female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. There she met her husband, Philip, who was president of the Oxford Union, after the late Benazir Bhutto – the future Pakistani prime minister – apparently introduced them both at a function.

From the educational heights of Oxford, May, whose father, a Church of England vicar, died from injuries sustained in a car accident when she was in her mid-20s, went on to find work in the City of London.

After a successful stint as a south London councillor, May, who has become known for her stylish choice of footwear at Westminster, became an MP in the 1997 general election, despite the Conservatives’ mauling at the hands of Tony Blair’s Labour Party.

Shadow governmental roles followed, but her moment came when the Conservative Party leader David Cameron won the most seats at the 2010 general election and she was appointed to the home brief in a subsequent coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.

In an appointment that has been the political graveyard for many British politicians in decades past, May, described as “a bit of an Ice Maiden” by former UK coalition government deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, made the home office her own.

Under her watch, Britain managed to avoid a mass terrorist attack and she received great acclaim after deporting Muslim cleric Abu Qatada in 2013.

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‘Red, white and blue Brexit’

The issue of Brexit has dominated her short tenure as prime minister, however. And before she shed light on the UK government’s objectives, she regularly caused great political irritation when “Brexit means Brexit” and a “red, white and blue Brexit” became the general extent of her public utterances on the subject.

“Her early months in office have not been without mistakes and mini-dramas, but May has developed a rather clever trick of keeping a low profile when things go wrong, buying her time to get back on the front foot and emerging only once she is certain she can speak from a position of strength,” Prince told Al Jazeera.

But this tactic appeared to backfire when she was heavily criticised after repeatedly refusing to reveal, during a TV interview this month, whether she knew that an unarmed British Trident missile had reportedly veered off course during a test run before the House of Commons voted to spend billions on renewing the UK’s nuclear deterrent last July.

So what kind of prime minister is May proving to be? Gerry Hassan told Al Jazeera that, with Brexit at the top of her agenda, “there is very little going on [elsewhere] in terms of government action”. This has, he said, only served to accentuate her lack of a “public persona”.

“She’s not a fully multi-dimensional public figure,” said Hassan, a Scottish political writer and commentator. “She’s very serious, she’s very controlled, and she plays it straight. She’s getting away with it at the moment for a variety of reasons, one of which is that the right-wing press love Brexit and the other is the chaos of the [opposition] Labour Party.”

Bale, author of The Conservative Party – From Thatcher to Cameron, also contends that May is currently benefiting from a perceived lack of opposition from Labour.

“The Labour Party is a laughing stock without any hope of regaining power for a decade or so,” he said. “That means she has none of the normal parliamentary and media constraints to worry about. She is therefore one of the UK’s most powerful prime ministers despite her sitting on a small majority.”

However, uncertain times surely lie ahead for the 60-year-old, who is due to meet US president Donald Trump in the White House on January 27.

Just this month, the UK Supreme Court put paid to May’s hope of a clean Brexit break on the domestic front when it ruled that parliament must vote on whether the government can begin the process of exiting the EU.

And once May enters talks with other EU nations on Britain’s withdrawal, negotiations will probably be tough.

She also faces the prospect of encountering demands for a second Scottish independence poll from Scotland’s equally steely nationalist first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who has used her constituent nation’s heavy 62-38 percent pro-EU vote in last year’s referendum to demand that it retains some kind of EU association.

“Theresa May was elected thanks to the Brexit vote, and it is inevitable that her premiership will be judged by how she manages the difficult task of quitting the EU as painlessly as possible,” said Prince.

“… I’m sure she would hope to achieve more than Brexit and general-crisis management during her time as prime minister. No matter what happens, losing control is definitely not on the agenda.”

Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi

Source: Al Jazeera