Theresa May’s challenge by Richard T. Kelly

As the British government reconvenes after summer recess, The Knives author Richard T. Kelly considers the challenges that await new Prime Minister, Theresa May. 

I spent five years or so researching my novel The Knives about a fictional Home Secretary, all the while keeping a close eye on the actual incumbent of the job. Thus for five years or so I woke up most mornings thinking I was Theresa May. Not literally, you understand; but in those opaque moments just after waking, certain familiar spectres took shape in my mind. What were the new net migrations figures going to be like, say? What might MI5 have heard overnight, out in the digital ether, regarding terror threats to the UK? What was the chief of Metropolitan Police saying about me (about Mrs May, I mean)?

Right now I fancy Theresa May’s job – her new job – less than ever. It’s hard to see how her prime ministerial tenure until the next election can be defined by anything other than Britain’s departure from the European Union – who did not mess about when they designed the famous Article 50 triggering a two-year negotiation over terms. It was meant to be bloody hard to leave the EU – even just for a member state to detach itself from the European single market so as to build alternative trading relations. And bloody hard it’s going to be.

But then, in politics the thing that’s happening today is not the definitive thing of all time, even though the commentariat have to treat it like so in our age of 24-hour news and social media chatter. Politics is still about ‘events, dear boy’, in Harold McMillan’s deathless coinage; or ‘unknown unknowns’, if you prefer Donald Rumsfeld. Mrs May will have learned all this every day as Home Secretary.

I write on the weekend before the House of Commons returns from summer recess – a weekend that finds Mrs May in China for the G20 summit, meeting Vladimir Putin for the first time in her new capacity, facing questions from the host nation about whether her government really doesn’t trust China to build the Hinkley Point reactor in Essex without practising espionage in the bargain? There is plenty for the Prime Minister to be getting on with, and scarce use in privileging one potential crisis at the expense of the many others.

The good news about Mrs May is that she is by all accounts a serious and purposeful person who is well on top of her briefings. You don’t sense, as with David Cameron, that she might rather Netflix-and-chill with a glass of good Burgundy. You don’t sense, as with Gordon Brown, that she will go missing like Macavity the Cat if she fears the news cycle might damage her. You don’t sense, as with first-term Tony Blair, that when she sees a well-lit stage she is gripped by an actor’s urge to leave the audience purring.

Mrs May has exhibited much purpose this week, telling us there won’t be a quick general election, or a second EU referendum, or a vote in Parliament to approve the dispatch of Article 50. Rather, she has apparently told EU leaders to expect delivery in early 2017.

The deal her government says it wants is a bespoke thing, befitting Britain’s ‘uniqueness’, allowing control over the movement of people from Europe but a ‘positive outcome’ for British businesses wanting to trade goods and services with the bloc.

On the former point Mrs May clearly believes this is what Britain voted for on June 23. (The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush writes that she ‘in private, has long believed that the mass immigration that followed the accession of the 2004 EU states is driving support for the populist right.’) While she was Home Secretary her commitment to David Cameron’s quite undoable target of reducing annual net migration to 100,000 was a cross on which she was lucky not to get nailed. Her successor, Amber Rudd, has signalled that the 100,000 figure is history and we are henceforth talking ‘sustainable levels’, whatever those are.

Britain’s Leave deal still appears a fiendish thing. How are British-domiciled banks going to preserve their ‘passporting’ rights to free single market access? While the hatred of bankers is a recently popular British sport, any exodus of big City players is a frightening prospect for Treasury tax revenues, one of the main panic factors – along with palpable uncertainties over investment and recruitment – since June 23. Leavers point to improved manufacturing export figures this month, though that was after a slump; and if a weak pound is helping exports it will have stung a fair few British holidaymakers this summer.

Another well of Leaving dread lies in the much-discussed composition of Mrs May’s cabinet. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson remains the second most popular politician in the country, a man who is fuelled by such confidence; but he has looked unsurprisingly sheepish, hunted and beaten-up since June 23. David Davis, ostensible captain of the ‘Brexit Department’, is not a politician who inspires confidence on his command of nuance and detail.

Will the EU, moreover, seek to avenge itself on Britain’s temerity in choosing to leave? The post-2004 acceding nations seem narked, understandably, for it is they who will feel unfairly deprecated by the British aversion to freedom of movement. And yet the older stalwarts of ‘the project’, however privately, will likely understand the UK’s pains. France’s need for security cooperation with the UK is greater than ever; and the context of elections in France and Germany next year is a very notable one, for ‘the project’ inspires less and less popular sympathy.

Perhaps Britain’s best hope is that the other 27 nations will want to get the deal done and crack on with other crises – in which case Britain needs clarity and resolve, which is what May seems to be trying to provide.

The stakes are high, consequences huge; but then how much of a farrago would May have to preside over to hand the momentum back to the Opposition? I find I can’t quite imagine such a mess: the mound of incompetence, inadequacy and rank unpleasantness under Corbyn-led Labour looks too deep and too bad-smelling now – and this while several platoons of political talent sit marooned on the party’s backbenches.

Polls suggest a hefty Tory majority whenever the next election falls, though of course there are unknown unknowns ahead. For the foreseeable, though, Mrs May can do what she likes – or rather, what she must, or however much of the two can coincide.

The Knives by Richard T. Kelly is available to buy now.