Theresa May entered the post into a country more rigidly divided and tumultuous than at any point since World War II.
However, May had positioned herself well before becoming Prime Minister, having stated readily a desire to reduce net immigration from the “unobtainable” figure of 184,000 as well as laying an emphasis on the state. Her position is in stark contrast to former PM David Cameron’s, who entered into a financial crisis he was grossly ill-suited to deal with given his Liberal-Conservative vision predicated on permanent growth, forcing him to taint his “modernising project” through embracing austerity. Not only this, but May shares better relations with the average Tory party member than Cameron ever did, while her sacking of Osbourne highlights her refreshing desire to create a great meritocracy.
Perhaps her only real blessing was in facing such a divided Labour party, whom she accused of not responding to their voters. May is in a position of which she has the power to condemn Corbyn to political oblivion. Her brand of New Conservatism poses a significant challenge to Labour to avoid losing voters disillusioned by Corbyn’s flip-flop Brexit strategy, but seven months into her tenure, and we still have little bearing as to where May will take Britain.
May has appeared more than willing to propose significant changes, breaking down the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s. She has split from liberal interventionism claiming that “we mustn’t assume there’s a sort of natural thing for the UK to intervene in order to change places in the way we think they should be changed,” highlighting a desire to pursue a fundamentally amoral, or ethically neutral foreign policy. While ironically the Brexit vote was a vote to gain greater control of our foreign policy, it appears that many of the issues which will shape her tenure will occur outside Britain, not least as Britain sits uncomfortably on the sidelines anticipating how Russian President Vladimir Putin and newly-elected US President Donald Trump’s relationship pans out. It appears so far “engage but beware” has been the primary approach, as her recent meeting with Trump did little to nothing to clarify what the nature of their relationship will be. Crucially, Britain must in the face of international imbalance retain an identity and a voice, avoiding becoming the “vassal state” French presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron has lampooned Britain for regressing into.
Internally, May’s policy proposals have not always entirely matched her rhetoric, as her recent threat to turn Britain into an offshore tax haven undermined her entire approach to the economy. The £24.3 billion takeover of ARM Holdings, the UK’s largest technology company, by Software Bank of Japan serves as proof that May will pursue a more liberal path than her rhetoric suggests. There is, however, no doubt about her sincerity in wanting improved corporate governance nor is there to be doubt about her aim to build grammar schools in poorer areas. But it was for appearing as a haven for nervous Conservative MPs that she was brought in for, and it will primarily be her ability to balance a Britain rife with schisms, and not alienate any of these margins of society that will define her tenure.
With regards to her words on Brexit, it is hard to charge her for opacity. Freedom, borders and escaping the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice; that is what Brexit will broadly resemble, and it is for this clarity that she must be praised for her speech at Lancaster House, after which the pound increased instantaneously. She has appeared more than willing to challenge key issues that are set to face Britain in the form of worker representation, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers. She still must prove that serious change means serious change, balancing her desire for clarity with that of maintaining unity. But the greatest challenges are still yet to come as she must accept that once Article 50 is triggered, she will become entirely at the mercy of events of the spurned EU27.
So far, the fact remains that there has been strikingly little to show for May’s tenure, as many of her timid proposals have been scaled down or withdrawn. It appears hard to lay down a signature policy which will define her tenure, as her need to seemingly agonise every issue in number 10 has left the public wondering whether she knows what she wants. The parallels that were instantaneously drawn between May and Thatcher have slowly faded, likewise, has her comparison with Merkel, as increasingly such lines have been diverted towards the dithering Gordon Brown. However, it is worth reminding ourselves that the early stages of Thatcher’s reign were hardly coated with plaudits, and equally nor was Merkel who struggled significantly. As yet, it remains far too early to lay down a judgement on May’s time as PM, as this period has been one in which the challenges which will determine the success of her tenure have merely been laid out before her. The mantra has now been set out before her to drag a Britain plagued with divisions into the unknown and improve and build on the tainted legacy of Margaret Thatcher.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of St George's Weybridge.