Jansen VanderMeulen '19
On June 22, 2016, UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s political prospects were sterling. His Conservatives had been resoundingly re-elected with a parliamentary majority just a year before, he faced a weakened opposition under the leadership of a political gadfly, and despite some ulcer-inducing polling on the then-forthcoming referendum on the UK’s status in the European Union, his gamble to hold the referendum and placate the right wing of his party was widely seen to have paid off. There was even discussion about whether he would renege on his promise to step down before the 2020 election and instead seek a third term in Downing Street. The next day, the United Kingdom shocked the world and voted narrowly to leave the European Union, and on the morning of June 24th, a shell-shocked Mr. Cameron somberly announced his resignation outside No. 10 Downing Street.
After a series of Shakespearian betrayals brought down the rest of Mr. Cameron’s ambitious heirs apparent, longtime Home Secretary Theresa May emerged rather anti-climactically as Britain’s second female Prime Minister. Dependable, unflashy, and averse to the Machiavellian plots of her fellow would-be leaders (like former London mayor Boris Johnson), Mrs. May brought needed stability to the Conservatives. But she was immediately faced with an impossible task: navigating Britain’s departure from the EU while placating the vast majority of her party’s members of parliament who voted to remain. Though a Remainer herself, Mrs. May took up the cause of Brexit with gusto. She appointed three leading Brexiteers to the Cabinet posts charged with negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU, and repeatedly told the House of Commons, “Brexit means Brexit!” Despite her emphatic declarations, no one was quite sure what, in fact, Brexit meant. Would it be a so-called “Soft Brexit,” in which Britain retained its access to the tariff-free EU single market, and the free movement of European goods and people that comes with it? Or would Mrs. May balk at continuing to allow unfettered immigration of European workers, triggering a “Hard Brexit” and potentially imperiling Britain’s economic access to the Continent? Though it took her a few months to move beyond “Brexit means Brexit,” Mrs. May and her Cabinet at last settled on the latter: Britain’s break from the European Union would be a clean one, she announced in January.
The job now facing Mrs. May is a daunting one. She, like generations of Conservative Prime Ministers, faces a mutinous parliamentary party ripped apart by their differences regarding Europe. She must also confront a hostile European Union, the leaders of which are not eager to make nice with renegade Britain. Jean-Claude Juncker, the arch-federalist President of the European Commission, has made no secret of his desire to make an example of Britain, to show any other state contemplating departure that they will have no easy time of it. Adding to her troubles, there are rumbles in Scotland of a new independence referendum. Scotland voted strongly to remain, and its nationalist First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is eager for a re-do of the Scottish Nationalists’ failed 2014 attempt to establish Scotland’s independence from London.
Mrs. May’s saving grace is the shabby incompetence of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition. The nominally center-left Labour Party, led within recent memory by modernizers like Tony Blair, is led now by Jeremy Corbyn, a left-winger so anachronistic he makes Bernie Sanders look like George W. Bush. Mr. Corbyn’s leadership has been plagued by rebellion and infighting; 75% of his parliamentary party rose up against him and forced a doomed leadership challenge after Mr. Corbyn’s half-hearted participation in the Remain campaign. The most recent polling gives Mrs. May’s Conservatives a 12-point lead over Mr. Corbyn’s Labour, a result that would translate to a sizable Conservative majority were an election held today. With the economic disruption of a Hard Brexit, Ms. Sturgeon’s threats to the Union looming, and trouble within her own party a near certainty, Mrs. May, a Church of England vicar’s daughter, should pray for Mr. Corbyn’s continued good health. Combined with her own political talents, and a little luck, it might just be enough to carry her to victory in 2020.