British Prime Minister Teresa May presented herself as upbeat in her party’s annual conference, in September, in Birmingham. Her dance before her speech demonstrated it. However, recent developments suggest that the beleaguered premier had/s no political, economic or diplomatic reason to be euphoric.
Of course, May is a competent politician with a harsh edge. She rose through the Tory ranks to become home secretary and then prime minister beating her formidable competitors. She has proven her harshness with her ‘hostile environment’ policy, continued austerity under linguistic velvet, and Windrush legacy, which cost Amber Rudd her job as home secretary.
However, after the snap general elections in 2017, she has not had much to celebrate. Politically, her party lost its majority in the parliament, making her reliant on the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to retain her post. She is caught in the tug of war between her pro-leave and pro-remain party members at this critical juncture of sensitive Brexit negotiations.
Boris Johnson, her pro-leave former foreign secretary, has been stabbing her front and center in pursuit of his prime ministerial ambition. Several members of parliament from her party have already written letters to the 1922 Committee, expressing their lack of confidence in her leadership.
Diplomatically, because of the above reasons, May’s credibility as a reliable negotiating partner in Brussels is next to nil. The European Union has rejected her Chequers Plan, cherry-picked from a number of EU agreements with different countries. It has asserted that either UK must ensure free border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, as agreed in the Good Friday Agreement or let NI stay in EU.
Economically, the British economy has slowed down because of Brexit uncertainty and potential loss of free access to EU single market. Consequently, growth rate has been revised downward. The Bank of England, the central bank, and businesses have warned that UK economy will tailspin if Britain crashes out of EU without an agreement. IMF has warned the no-deal Brexit might push UK into recession.
Above all, the issue of Northern Ireland is an existential question for the United Kingdom. If London breaches the provision that there would be no physical border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, IRA violence may resume. It it abides by the agreement but crashes out of EU, it will have to effectively cede NI to EU/Ireland.
Faced with this set of dangers, what was it that May meant to show with her upbeatness and her dance in the Tory annual national conference?
A few things come readily to mind. One, it was all optics to show that she was not intimidated by Johnson’s onslaught. Two, she might have sized up that Johnson does not have a majority to topple her from her perch. Three, she might have just wanted to shed the image of Margot, a robotic person.
Four, it could be a swan song. Why go out crying if you have to go out anyway? Show confidence and hope for the best. If the situation goes against you, so be it. Five, she might have been confident that her soon-to-be-made announcement about the end of the austerity could buy her some breathing space from challenges from all sides.
Only time will tell, and the time to tell is around the corner. In other words, May is on borrowed time. Those actively opposing her within her party apart, some of her own current ministers wanted to know from her Tory Conference speech to give an indication as to when she was planning to step aside. She gave no such indication.
But the reality is going to come to bite her sooner than later, and the bite will come from the Brexit quagmire unless EU generously accommodates her at the cost of undermining the single market’s integrity.