COMMENTARY
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Brexit

‘Iron lady’ May lacks the mettle to make Britain great again

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 10:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 10:02pm

When prime minister David Cameron rightly fell on his sword last June following his disastrous EU referendum, many in Britain hoped for a new beginning. To borrow a phrase, who would now make Britain “great” again?

Home secretary at the time Theresa May was the obvious choice to steady the ship. Swiftly installed as Cameron’s successor, many Conservatives saw her leadership victory as the return of an “iron lady” – a no-nonsense premier cut from the same cloth as Margaret Thatcher. Here was the prime minister that the bitterly divided country now needed. May was quickly lauded by the right-wing national press as being just the ticket to stop in-fighting among cabinet ministers. Here was a leader who would not suffer fools gladly – someone who could prepare the country for a “hard Brexit”.

Backed by her party, May went to work quickly and immediately showed a ruthless streak. Potential challengers like the Machiavellian Michael Gove and tainted chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne were disposed of. Here was a prime minister unafraid to ruffle feathers.

But six months is a very long time in politics, and May’s honeymoon period quickly ended. Earlier this month, she carelessly lost her EU ambassador.

In his resignation letter, outspoken Ivan Rogers lashed out at the government for its “muddled thinking” on Brexit. It seemed that Rogers had paid the price for weeks earlier suggesting that EU trade talks could take a decade or more.

Sadly, the departure of Rogers, just weeks before Britain begins its formal exit talks, is just one of a series of events or missteps that have seriously dented the prime minister’s reputation for competence. At worst, they paint a picture of a government floundering.

Question marks surrounding May’s leadership appeared early on. As a woman who thrived within the male dominated British parliament, where tradition often overrides common sense, she began her premiership in jaw-dropping style.

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Few saw her surprise appointment of the Brexit Leave leader, gaffe-prone “buffoon” Boris Johnson, as foreign secretary. Representing the British government overseas would be a crucial role in the coming months – so why give it to a man known for criticising leaders across the globe? A man most famous for getting stuck on a London Olympic Games zip wire. Perhaps May was being bold – keeping her friends close and her enemies closer. Maybe she thought she could neuter Johnson. Muzzle a blabbermouth.

But days later, while watching “Bojo” during his first major press conference (alongside US Secretary of State John Kerry), I was left cringing as he struggled to fend off a press pack baying for blood. Next came Johnson’s trade spat with Italy over EU exports of prosecco and fish and chips. That was embarrassing.

Last month Johnson received a very public dressing down from May’s office after he accused Britain’s ally in the war on terror, Saudi Arabia, of “playing proxy wars” in the Middle East. Could it get any worse? I fear it will.

May’s biggest problem however, is her lack of vision. Six months in the hot seat and I’m still trying to figure out what she actually stands for. This lack of policy and an apparent inability to stamp her own personality on her administration, is even more frustrating given that the main opposition is busy battling its own civil wars on a weekly basis. May should have a free hand. So where are the game-changing policies?

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In fairness, Cameron’s legacy is a Conservative Party that despite fighting a years-long campaign for an EU referendum, achieved its goal but is still stomping its feet like a spoilt child.

Senior ministers continue to squabble over Brexit, both publically and privately. Tory backbenchers seem to be on the perpetual warpath. These factors aren’t helping May, and forcing the prime minister into a dangerous U-turn that will allow parliament to debate and vote on the government’s EU exit strategy, was self-defeating. Expect a lot more bloodletting ahead of the planned trigger of Article 50 in March.

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But putting Tory infighting to one side, my main issue with May is that while she often says the right things – like committing to putting workers on company boards or curbing the excesses of crony capitalism – she lacks action. There is also too much spin for a leader who promised a back-to-basics style of governance. She seems indecisive. Forget all her talk about “Brexit means Brexit” or a “red, white and blue Brexit”, this is a government that is struggling to find its feet. An administration that has failed on several occasions to outline what its EU objectives are.

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With the worst of austerity cuts already in place, unemployment numbers low and no credible opposition, there should be an arrogance to the Tories. But whenever I see pictures of May, she looks ill at ease. It’s almost as though she got the top job but once in Downing Street, realised her mistake.

This coming year will provide Britain with huge challenges and it will need a strong leader. The Westminster chatter now however, is whether May will be around to lead the Conservatives at the next election – be it a snap poll or in 2020. Without a turnaround in approach, she will follow Cameron into the history books sooner rather than later.

Michael Taylor is assistant international editor at South China Morning Post