Americans might be in awe if the next US president, after a hard-fought campaign, were to say: “I don’t think we should see people as Republicans and Democrats now.” Yet a shedding of labels is often necessary for a country to heal. And if any country must mend itself right now, it is Britain after its vote to leave the European Union (“Brexit”).
To her credit as Britain’s best mender at the moment, the incoming prime minister, Theresa May, did ask her country to drop labels. “I don’t think we should see people as Brexiteers and Remainers now.” At least for her ruling Conservative party, which was wracked by a leadership battle to replace departing Prime Minister David Cameron, her words should be political balm.
Ms. May might have been speaking to herself. She was in the minority of Conservatives who supported staying in the EU – although she did not lead that campaign – but now she will be the chief negotiator with the EU in setting the terms for Britain’s exit. She humbly gulped the loss of her point of view and has announced no turning back. “Brexit means Brexit,” she says.
May has other aspects of her background that might be helpful in the coming negotiations with the EU while also keeping the UK itself from splitting apart.
Her political opponents find her approachable and practical, even if tough. She is frank, even to the point of once telling her own party that it is perceived as “nasty.” And as a woman and the daughter of a Church of England vicar, she may find it easy to deal with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU’s most powerful leader whose father was a Lutheran pastor.
May also knows plenty about the main issue for Englanders who voted for “Leave”: immigration. She was Home Secretary (interior minister) since 2010. The job, which is rarely an advantageous post to become prime minister, put her on the frontlines of security concerns. She is also admired for holding that job longer than any British politician in more than a century.
If any part of Britain now needs the certainty of a steady hand, it is the economy. To appeal to Leave voters concerned about globalization, May says she wants “a country that truly works for everyone.” That could mean more scrutiny of proposed foreign takeovers of British companies.
May herself has sometimes been dismissive of her personal qualities. “Showing that you can do something, that you’re in the job and doing it, is more important than the back-story,” she once said. In other words, she wants to be a woman of action, not labels.