Theresa May will have to call on all her resilience to unite Britain
The United Kingdom’s new leader faces a massive challenge in dealing with the aftermath of the vote to leave the European Union
Theresa May has become the second woman to lead Britain after the late Margaret Thatcher. They both came to power at pivotal but very different times for their nation. Faced with industrial anarchy and economic stagnation, Thatcher broke union power. She put the economy back on track but is criticised to this day for creating a less fair society. May has taken the reins from David Cameron in the political fallout from the vote to leave the European Union. She campaigned against leaving but has promised to make a success of Brexit and strive for a more inclusive, equal society. To do this she must listen to people who feel they have not been heard. She may have campaigned pragmatically rather than passionately, but few dispute that she can be tough and difficult, qualities she herself says could be useful in Brexit negotiations that lie ahead.
If May is to make a success of Brexit for all Britons, she must try to reconcile the interests of the people who voted to stay with those who voted to leave. Take the headline issue of immigration. To be concerned about immigration does not make one a “racist moron”, one of the epithets hurled by angry “Remain” voters on social media. Thanks in part to austerity policies – borne most painfully by the most vulnerable – Britain has emerged from the global financial crisis as one of Europe’s healthiest economies. As such it has attracted migrants from other parts of Europe. It is to be expected voters in areas such as the former northern England industrial heartlands and Wales would be concerned about them taking jobs. At the same time, however, London, Scotland and centres such as Manchester thrive on freedom of movement in Europe and skilled immigration. Immigration restrictions therefore have negative implications for lifting productivity, a goal that May has just assigned to the Treasury.
May’s pledge to make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few but for everyone includes, for example, putting workers on company boards, curbing executive pay, cracking down on corporate tax avoidance, an end to budget austerity to improve the lives of Brexit voters and bridging the gap between north and south. Some of it would not look out of place in a Labour Party manifesto. It calls for a blend of Thatcherite staying power, compassion and the boldness typified by the appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. Six years in the political hot seat as home secretary – the longest term but one since the late 19th century – are testament to the resilience and persistence she will need.