With the installment today of Home Secretary Theresa May as the new leader of the Conservative Party, it is all but confirmed that the MP for Maidenhead will succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She becomes the second ever female British Prime Minister after the groundbreaking “Iron Lady” Baroness Margaret Thatcher who served from 1979 to 1990. May’s accession to the role comes 9 weeks earlier than expected, with all other contenders for the Conservative Party Leadership either being eliminated, or dropping out.
May becomes Prime Minister at an unprecedented, and potentially dangerous, point in British history. With the result of the recent referendum on European Union membership favouring a “Brexit”, there will undoubtedly be economic turmoil ahead for one of the largest economies in the world. With Brexit also comes the looming threat of increased Scottish nationalism; another independence referendum is being mooted – could Theresa May become the last ever Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
She also becomes Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party at a time of political turmoil in Great Britain. She has to unite the Tory Party after a bruising Brexit referendum campaign which saw Tory MP blast Tory MP, and she has to unite the country after a 52%-48% result, the campaigning of which saw the brutal assassination of a pro-EU Labour MP. Across the aisle too there is conflict with the Labour Party tearing itself apart over its leadership.
And globally too there is uncertainty. With the UK’s exit, what next for the EU? What will May’s approach be to the global migration crisis, and how will she deal with the threat of extreme Islamic terrorism and insurgency? Looking across the Atlantic Ocean, will she maintain the “special relationship” if Donald Trump is elected President of the United States and, importantly, can she be seen to support racist and authoritarian policies he may wish to enact?
David Cameron took office after a General Election which saw him partner with the Liberal Democrats in a coalition to steady the ship of the United Kingdom during one of the greatest financial crises the world has seen. But in reality, that was Cameron’s only real and substantial challenge. It was the only important thing looming over him. May has, as I’ve outlined, many more challenges. How will she cope, having only ever served in the Home Office throughout her time in Government?
I don’t have answers to these questions. It’s foolish to attempt to do so.
Her colleagues and her opponents alike, however, describe Theresa May as “steely” and “determined”. The media can’t help but liken her to Margaret Thatcher, both in terms of her sex and her approach to her political work. May is known to love the details and doesn’t settle for the vague general descriptions that civil service advisers are known to resort to with their Ministers. Long considered the poison chalice of the British Government, Theresa May’s tenure in the Home Office is generally considered a success and the length of her time there – 6 years – is testament to that fact.
She grasps concepts and details quickly, according to those who have worked with her, but she is reluctant to delegate and prone to micromanagement. May will not be able to micromanage an entire government as she did with the Home Office, so her choices for cabinet will have to people she has worked with previously, and people she can trust. But, because of Brexit, her cabinet will also have to be carefully balanced with people who were both for and against leaving the European Union.
So who might those people be? Commentators are saying May’s style of politics is very quiet and very personal – she puts her head down, works hard, and lets the results speak for themselves. In this regard, she challenged her fellow MPs to look at her record, and she didn’t promise any jobs in exchange for support. But we do have some idea of the people she might, or will have to, choose.
Chris Grayling – Grayling is a cabinet colleague, former Justice Secretary and current Leader of the House, but he was also her leadership campaign manager. The idea that Grayling will not be included in her cabinet seems very unlikely. It’s possible that Grayling could succeed her as Home Secretary, but I wouldn’t rule out Work & Pensions or a return to Justice.
Boris Johnson – The leading Brexiteer, Johnson was widely expected to challenge for the leadership, but infighting and backstabbing within the Brexit campaign meant this could not happen. He has a huge profile and it’s entirely reasonable that he should be brought into cabinet. It’s likely, though, he won’t get a profile directly related to Brexit, like May’s supposed Brexit Department, or the Chancellorship. But he could get Transport, as he has quite the aptitude for large projects, though Business and Trade might be another option.
Stephan Crabb – Crabb is a rising star in the party and not being included in Cabinet would not just be a snub to him, but would alienate a lot of the party. Normally May would not care for that and would appoint only appropriately qualified people to the correct posts, but I would imagine that May too recognises the ability of her cabinet colleague. Crabb has moved from Wales Secretary to Work & Pensions Secretary, and it’s entirely likely he has his eye on Chancellor of the Exchequer. Whether May will bestow this on Crabb so early in his career, though, is hard to gauge, but unlikely. If May is teeing up to be a one term PM, then Crabb as Chancellor would be perfectly poised to succeed her in 2020. I think he might stay in Work and Pensions, or perhaps will get a promotion to Home Secretary.
Phillip Hammond – Current Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond was a big supporter of Theresa May, and has been her cabinet colleague for years, having been Defence Secretary before his current job. May also served with Hammond in the Shadow Cabinet where he was Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury – it could be entirely appropriate that the job Hammond gets would be Chancellor.
Andrea Leadsom – One of the final two candidates alongside May, Leadsom dropped out of the Tory Leadership race when naive comments to the media came back to bite her. Leadsom has no cabinet experience, but has been a junior energy minister. May would probably do well to be magnanimous and give Leadsom a promotion to cabinet, but it’s unlikely to be in a role that requires considerable talent – Energy Secretary or Culture Secretary, perhaps.
Justine Greening – Greening has served in Cabinet with May since 2012, as Transport Secretary, and later International Development. She was a prominent Remainer, and was one of the first to come out and support Theresa May as Prime Minister. She also recently came out as the first out lesbian member of cabinet. Greening should be kept, and it’s possible she will be, but she could be stuck in her International Development brief, or possibly a move to Education or Health. She may be angling for a promotion to Foreign Secretary, but it’s possible May will need to put a Brexiteer in this brief to keep the Conservative Party, and the voting public, happy.
Liam Fox – A prominent Brexiter, experienced politician, and former Secretary of Defence. Fox also ran for the leadership, but was eliminated on first count. I think May would be best placed putting Fox in charge of the “Brexit Department” but I also think Foreign Secretary would be a good and worthwhile role, bring Fox back into cabinet after a number of years out in the cold.
But this is just speculation. The only person who knows who Theresa May will choose is Theresa May. But she has a battle ahead of her. For my part, I’m convinced she was the right choice for Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party. She has the nerves, the intelligence, and the ability to steer the UK through the various crises it’s going to face in the next number of years. She puts moral obligations above political ones, and she won’t suffer fools, something I think can only be good for mending a Tory Party that tore itself apart during the EU Referendum.