Theresa May Emerges Out of Chaos 3

The peculiar path to power of PM May.

In the first two parts of this series, we've explored how Britain's referendum decision to leave Europe and the civil war within the Labour Party have paved the way for Theresa May's march to power.

Theresa May, prime minister

Theresa May made her leadership challenge following Cameron’s notice of his resignation. Others joined the race, including former London mayor Boris Johnson and Michael Gove who had campaigned together in favor of Brexit, sharing the same podium.  However, even though Gove had previously said he never wanted to be a prime minister, when he announced his own bid for leadership, he also said that he “recently discovered” that Boris Johnson was unfit for office.

Stabbed in the back, Johnson gave up his claim, leaving Gove as the last man standing in the race. Then the other contenders resigned or were voted out until only  two women remained.  Andrea Leadsom made an injudicious claim that because she had children (Theresa May does not) she would be a better leader.  On July 11th, Leadsom withdrew from the race, thereby handing the position of prime minister to Theresa May by default.

Theresa May had always been the firm favorite to win and even though she had officially been on the “Remain” side, she had publicly announced that if she should win the leadership election, she would sign Article 50, thus officially launching the process of Britain’s official exit from the EU. In the social and political turmoil, her certainty on this score was an essential part of stabilizing the governing party, and showing to the nation that she was prepared to abide by the will of the people.

Economically, the previous chancellor George Osborne’s financial measures were generally perceived to impose “austerity” not upon the profligate bankers who had contributed to the financial crisis, but upon the poor and the disabled. Theresa May’s inaugural speech, delivered on July 13th, appeared to acknowledge such public dissatisfaction, while still keeping continuity within her party by acknowledging the “One Nation” policies of David Cameron, her predecessor. May’s speech showed a clear commitment to look after the needs of the many rather than just the few.

On May 4th, 1979, Margaret Thatcher’s inaugural speech had invoked a prayer by Francis of Assisi, which included the lines “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.” Theresa May’s words had the same aim of evoking social cohesion after political entropy, but her speech was structured for the current time, and mentioned specific groups who had felt lack of representation.

Theresa May’s first decisions as prime minister, on rearranging the cabinet, were remarkably sound. Cameron’s unpopular Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, was banished to the backbenches. Michael Gove, reviled as a traitor, lost his cabinet role. Theresa May brought Boris Johnson back into the political fold by giving him the influential role of foreign secretary. May had to include at least one leading Brexit campaigner in the cabinet, and despite British media caricatures of Johnson as a buffoon, he is no idiot.


Before Cameron’s resignation, Theresa May had been a Home Secretary for longer than any other politician for 50 years, in a role that for most politicians is short-lived. The home secretary deals mainly with issues of national security, crime and punishment and immigration. Successive previous Home Secretaries from 2003 onwards had failed to deport Salafist preacher Abu Qatada to his home nation of Jordan where he was wanted in connection with terrorism charges. Qatada had arrived illegally in Britain in 1993, and was detained in 2002, but he successfully used human rights legislation to remain in Britain. On July 7th 2013, Theresa May finally deported Qatada to Jordan.

As well as being firm, May was conscientious. In 2014 Boris Johnson as London mayor authorized the purchase of three water cannon for use against potential rioters in the capital. A year later, Theresa May ruled that no water cannons would ever be used in England and Wales, showing her firm commitment to moral principles.

As prime minister, Theresa May has shown herself more than able to combat opposition. Her ripostes to Corbyn have even made her popular with some Labour critics of the opposition leader.

On issues of nuclear defense, May is equally forthright. On July 19th in the House of Commons she supported the renewal of Britain’s submarines carrying Trident nuclear missiles.

Scottish nationalist George Keveran asked: “Is she personally prepared to authorize a nuclear strike that can kill a hundred thousand innocent men, women and children?”  Theresa May’s answer came with no hesitation: “Yes. And I have to say to the honorable gentleman the whole point of a deterrent is that our enemies need to know that we would be prepared to use it…”

The vote to renew Trident was passed by 472 for, and 117 against. Though officially the Labour Party “approves” of Trident, Jeremy Corbyn did not vote to support it, and somewhat ridiculously Labour’s defense minister Emily Thornberry chose to abstain from the vote, claiming she was sending a “message” to the government.

In the short time since Theresa May officially became Britain’s prime minister, there has been the terror attack upon civilians in Nice, France, several more in Germany, and an attempted coup against President Erdogan in Turkey followed by his crackdown on suspected opponents. Theresa May has responded to the attack in France, declaring a need to “redouble efforts” to combat terrorism and stating Britain would “stand shoulder to shoulder” with France.

Regarding honoring the Brexit referendum, Theresa May has told Angela Merkel that there will be no negotiations on how Britain will leave the European Union until 2017, because the process of Brexit would require a "sensible and orderly departure."

During the chaos of Brexit campaigning, pundits of both sides made hyperbolic claims. Their Apocalyptic and Utopian predictions ratcheted up the climate of hysteria and uncertainty. Many of us who voted for Brexit have lost friends as a result of our voting choice.

It will take time for the social divisions to heal, but few could deny that Theresa May is a firm and sensible leader.  She has not promised – as Thatcher did – to bring harmony where there was discord. But Theresa May has brought something that is perhaps more important in such eventful times: she has brought stability to Britain’s government.

Reader Comments

The British system seems to choose pretty sensible leaders in a relatively short time. Let's hope she turns out as well as she's portrayed.

August 1, 2016 5:28 PM

The British system seems to choose pretty sensible leaders in a relatively short time. Let's hope she turns out as well as she's portrayed.

August 1, 2016 5:28 PM
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