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Diplomatic Watch: Brexit and Conservative British politics

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By Daniel Furnard

Theresa May’s tenure as Head of State is drawing to a close, as no surprise to anyone inside or outside of the UK. Being an opponent of Brexit before the referendum, but committed to seeing it through once chosen as Prime Minister, Mrs. May might be seen by some to have been compromised from the beginning. On closer inspection, however, it must be said, even by many of her critics, that May doggedly pursued the objective, if ultimately failing to deliver it.

Her successor and more on who that might be in a bit is not going to have an easy time, no matter who it is, or what approach they take. A No-Deal Brexit seems to be the choice of the hard-line conservatives in the Tory party. But the next Prime Minister does not want to start his or her leadership with a huge fiasco creating problems with the economy, foreign affairs, immigration, etc. So, what can the next leader do?

Negotiate a great deal with the European Union that can win approval from Parliament? That sounds like something that Theresa May tried and failed to do. Perhaps the former London MAYOR Boris Johnson will have better luck. He pulled off a great hosting of the Olympics. But based on his track record as Foreign Secretary, it is hard to see Boris get the best of the EU.

Of course, because the EU holds the cards. They are in no hurry to let go of their arrangement with London. They know both sides will feel pain upon separation, but the pain in the EU’s case is spread over 27 countries. And if you look at the recent history of free trade agreements, nobody really wants to break up. See how Trump mended fences with Mexico and Canada to keep NAFTA alive. Hope springs eternal that the nearly three-year old referendum that signaled the end of the UK’s membership in the EU, might go the route that Trump’s promises of ending special trade ties with America’s longest bordering neighbors went.

So, who is next to take on this Herculean task of negotiating with a reticent EU for a great deal, or starting their administration with one hand tied behind their backs? Boris Johnson is said to be the front runner according to bookies and pundits. He certainly seems to want it, changing from bulldog to statesman when he Tweeted his praise of Prime Minister May on her resignation: “A very dignified statement from @theresa_may. Thank you for your stoical service to our country and the Conservative Party. It is now time to follow her urgings: to come together and deliver Brexit.” A mayor has never been elected President in the US, but Britain had a female Head of State first, so it is possible they will blaze the trail.

Speaking of that first Prime Minister…the demise of Theresa May has some similarities to that of Britain’s first female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Sadly, one of those is the latest Daily Mirror headline “Tears in the Back Seat”, which also accompanied a photo of Margaret Thatcher riding away from her resignation speech in 1990. Some might call it the Agony of Defeat. While May’s reign will end in just over a thousand days, Thatcher occupied 10 Downing for a dozen years. Still, if you are Andrea Leadson’s shoes, it is worth noting that the Conservative Party has not always been kind to its women leaders, especially on the way out.

Leadson just quit her MP post in the House of Commons, leading to widespread speculation that she will compete for the leadership position May is vacating. It only takes two Conservative members of Parliament to back you, to put you in the running for the nation’s top job. So Leadson doesn’t have a large hurdle to clear to be in the race, but potentially faces lots of opposition.

Names circulated include International Development Secretary Rory Stewart and former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey, who have both declared their interest. Then there is May’s de facto deputy David Lidington. Also from her cabinet, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Environment Secretary Michael Gove. Don’t count out former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab.

Oh, and wait, there is another face for her cabinet that might make an interesting choice – Home Secretary Sajid Javid. The former Managing Director of Deutsche Bank was born in Lancashire, but he doesn’t really look the part of the Boss of Brexit. His parents are Pakistani Muslim immigrants. The Brexit movement, born of anti-immigrant, nationalist feeling wouldn’t seem to be the natural place for an ethnic Pakistani.

But Javid has been consistent in his positions of opposing Europeans freely working in the UK, as well as other conservative positions on immigration. In 2015 he stripped a Bangladeshi-born women of her citizenship for joining ISIS. He advocated for the Brexit referendum in the first place. And on the personal side, his wife is a church-going Christian, and they honeymooned in Israel!

Prime Minister Javid, welcome to the EU negotiating table! While a little premature, it would seem Javid would be an ironic choice to lead the exit. But perhaps Javid has the answers for how to make this work without crippling the British economy.

For now, we will wait and see, with two big deadlines looming. The July Parliamentary recess is when a new Conservative leader is expected to be chosen. And the end of October is the new deadline for the UK to leave the European Union.

For others in the Commonwealth, what lessons are there to be learned? It’s hard to say. Most experts still see free trade zones as being economic accelerators. Most British allies (27 perhaps excluded) still think they can count on London in a pinch. Not so many have tried out female Heads of State, so Theresa May’s tenure won’t matter to most.

Perhaps the one solid lesson to be taken home is that when a referendum is held someone must have a plan of how to implement it. When the people speak, they expect action. May’s inaction cost her, her political legacy. The UK may be an economic mess due to a no-Deal Brexit. If only someone had planned ahead. But three years later, it’s too late, and now someone is going to have to clean up this mess.

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