Three weeks after Britain’s decision to leave the European Union created unprecedented political turmoil, a little certainty has returned to Downing Street. The Conservative party’s leadership election came to an abrupt end on Monday as Andrea Leadsom left Theresa May the last woman standing, and we now have a new Prime Minister – only the second woman to hold the office, the first in 26 years.
So what’s next for the government, the country, and Britain’s role in the European Union? As it happens, quite a lot.
First things first: a new cabinet for a new government
As she began her campaign to lead the Conservatives, Theresa May sought to position herself as both the experienced successor to David Cameron and a rather different kind of Tory leader. Her cabinet – which will decide the country’s foreign and domestic policy agendas going forward – is fast becoming drastically different to that of her predecessor.
At the time of writing, some of the household names of the Cameron era have “left the government” (that is to say, they’ve been sacked) – Chancellor George Osborne, education secretary Nicky Morgan, culture secretary John Wittingdale, and justice secretary (and high-profile Brexiteer) Michael Gove are all out.
Cameron’s foreign secretary, Phillip Hammond, succeeded Osborne as Chancellor shortly after Mrs May arrived at Number 10. Hammond’s former role has been taken up by Boris Johnson, in a move that has bemused the international community. Johnson is joined by two other Eurosceptic MPs, David Davis and Liam Fox leading up new departments for leaving the EU and international trade respectively.
From what we know so far, a clear pattern is emerging; in the wake of Brexit, Mrs May is appointing Eurosceptics to guide the UK’s foreign policy, and MPs who sided with the remain campaign are taking charge of a less hardline set of domestic policies. It’s still early days, though; things may change.
We could see less austerity, or at least fewer major spending cuts
During the referendum campaign, then-chancellor George Osborne said there would be an “emergency budget” in the wake of Brexit, where the government would impose an extra £30bn worth of tax rises and spending cuts to offset the economic impact of the leave vote.
It was widely considered a bad move by Mr Osborne, whose time at the Treasury has largely been defined by his attempts to have the country deliver a budget surplus. The new PM made it clear before her appointment that there would be no emergency budget; her new chancellor, Phillip Hammond, spent his first morning in the job giving interviews that reiterated this point.
So, with no emergency budget, we’re going to have to wait until the autumn to see the May government’s big ideas on fiscal policy. Events, however, may force the government’s hand – government borrowing rates are at their lowest in their 300-year recorded history, and there’s a near-universal economic consensus that the government should use those rates to invest in public services and infrastructure projects.
Brexit means Brexit, but what it means and when it happens are still up in the air
Despite Theresa May’s reluctant support of the remain side during the EU referendum, the new Prime Minister has made it incredibly clear: in her eyes, Brexit means Brexit. Her appointments of Eurosceptics Boris Johnson, David Davis, and Liam Fox to key Brexit-related positions in the cabinet is an effort to reassure leave voters and more right-wing members of the Tory party that no matter how many internet petitions are signed, there will be no second referendum and Britain will leave the EU.
But there are going to be some huge roadblocks. Formal negotiations and even informal discussion about Britain’s terms for leaving the EU are unlikely to happen until May triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which sets us on a two-year path to Brexit. Several member states, especially France, want to give Britain tough exit terms to thwart Eurosceptic right-wing movements in their own countries.
On top of all this, the government needs to construct an actual plan for Brexit. David Cameron was heavily criticised by members of both the opposition and his own party for not doing any contingency planning before the referendum; from immigration to access to the European single market, it’s now up to Mrs May’s Brexiteers to imagine the country’s future outside of the European Union.
Theresa May has an incredibly tough job. Her predecessor, David Cameron, leaves a nation divided, staring into the abyss after a referendum result few expected. As Prime Minister, she hopes to build a country that works for everyone – but first, she has to tackle, head-on, one of the country’s biggest peacetime crises.