Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1303, (14 - 20 July 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1303, (14 - 20 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Britain’s new prime minister

The United Kingdom has a woman prime minister for the second time in its history, part of the fall-out from June’s EU referendum, writes David Tresilian

Al-Ahram Weekly

Observers of British politics have been having a field day since the result of the country’s 23 June referendum on leaving the European Union was announced three weeks ago.

Prime Minister David Cameron has resigned, those who led the so-called “Brexit” campaign urging the UK’s exit from the European Union have disappeared, and almost the entire shadow cabinet, made up of leading figures from the opposition Labour Party in the British parliament, has resigned pending what may turn out to be a nasty battle for the party’s leadership.

However, this week saw a new twist in what even by British standards was becoming an unusually theatrical game of musical chairs, played out sometimes in the full glare of the media, sometimes in rooms off the corridors of power behind the scenes, with the emergence of a new prime minister.

Following the withdrawal of all the other contenders for the position, Interior Minister Theresa May, 59, yesterday became the UK’s second woman prime minister after fellow Conservative Party politician Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, replacing Cameron and avoiding the need for a drawn-out process of selection that could have meant a caretaker prime minister staying in office until October.

Making the announcement earlier this week, Cameron said that May would take up office as early as Wednesday, once he had had the chance to tender his resignation to the queen. May was “strong” and “competent,” he said in a brief statement to the press, echoing her public reputation built up over six years in office as the country’s interior minister.

May said she was “honoured and humbled” to have been chosen as the new prime minister, taking the opportunity to add that one of her main priorities would be “to negotiate the best deal for Britain in leaving the EU” in the wake of the surprise result of the 23 June referendum in which the United Kingdom shocked many observers by opting to leave the 28-nation bloc of which it has been a member since 1973.

Opposition demands for a general election because of the change of prime minister have been dismissed, with commentators saying that this is neither a constitutional requirement nor one that has been established by precedent. There was no general election when Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as prime minister in 2007 or when John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher in 1990.

Britain’s ruling Conservative Party government, re-elected to govern the country in general elections last year, is expected to stay in office until the end of the present five-year term in 2020. May is expected to make changes to the cabinet she has inherited from her predecessor, possibly removing Cameron allies such as Finance Minister George Osborne and Justice Minister Michael Gove, and replacing them with figures who supported her bid for office as the country’s new prime minister.

Otherwise, there has been speculation as to what may change in government policy as a result of the appointment of a new prime minister. In addition to dealing with the negotiations over Britain’s exit from the European Union, anticipated to start as soon as the present confusion has ended, May will need to manage an array of economic and social problems, as well as constitutional issues raised by the result of the EU referendum.

Whereas most of England outside London voted to leave the EU in a result that saw 51.9 per cent of the population voting to leave the Union and 48.1 per cent voting to stay on a turnout of 72.2 per cent, Scotland and Northern Ireland, constituent countries of the United Kingdom, voted to stay in.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already signalled her unhappiness with the idea that Scotland, having voted to remain part of the EU, will now be forced to leave it because of the preferences of its English and Welsh neighbours.

Constitutional issues of this sort may require sensitive handling by the new prime minister, who may not wish to exacerbate already strained relations between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.

She may also want to pay more attention to the economic and social divisions made visible by the result of the EU referendum, with large towns and cities, particularly London, on the whole voting to stay in the EU and country areas voting to leave it, and some middle class areas predominantly voting to remain in the EU and working class and particularly post-industrial areas voting to leave it.

Not much is known of May’s own political convictions, with her reputation in the Conservative Party being one of unshowy competence. However, May surprised commentators this week with a speech made shortly before her appointment as the country’s new prime minister in which she appeared to indicate that her government could pursue rather different policies to those associated with Cameron.

 “We need a government that will deliver serious social reform – and make ours a country that truly works for everyone,” she said. “Because right now, if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white.”

“If you’re a white working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you still earn less than a man.”

It is not known what kind of reform May might have in mind, and according to some commentators the kinds of divisions and inequalities she pointed to in her speech have in fact been made worse in recent years by the austerity policies pursued by governments of which she was a leading member.

For many British voters, May is an unknown quantity since she does not have and does not seem to have sought to have the kind of high-profile public personality exhibited by some of her party peers.

Scrambling to explain to its readers what they might expect from a May-led government this week, the UK newspaper The Guardian said that May was the “serious-minded child of a religious minister [her father was a clergyman], steeped in moral purpose, possessed of an iron need to control.”

It added that “she demands unswerving loyalty… She may not be adored, but she commands admiration, a wary respect and deep gratitude from many Tory [Conservative Party] women.”

As interior minister, May had responsibility for immigration to the United Kingdom, though it is unlikely that she alone decided government policy on a sensitive issue that many times saw interventions from Cameron. However, according to The Guardian, May has been associated with policies “aimed at drastically reducing immigration from outside the EU,” notably by putting up almost impossible barriers to family reunification.

For the rest, there does not seem much in May’s voting record over the past six years to differentiate her from many other members of the Conservative Party government. While she made some surprising remarks this week on social divisions, inequality and by implication the failures of state education and welfare services, there is nothing in her record that suggests major changes in government policy.

Such changes would in any case likely require a major spending review, with increased spending on education necessary to achieve the kind of enhanced opportunities for disadvantaged young people that May said she was sympathetic to in her speech on Monday.

Any such increased spending would require either increased taxation or increased borrowing, or a combination of both, and it is unlikely that either would be sanctioned by a Conservative Party government elected last year on a programme of reducing public spending and paying down the country’s debt.

It seems unlikely that May will change the direction of the UK’s Conservative Party government or cash out the reforms she has mentioned with any significant re-allocation of public spending.

Commentators are already suggesting that her appointment as Britain’s new prime minister may simply reproduce a leader-follower logic already familiar in British politics and seen in the relationship between Major and Thatcher, Brown and Blair, or, going back to the 1970s, Callaghan and Wilson.

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