British Prime Minister Theresa May's job No. 1: heal both party and country

The brutal Brexit referendum campaign has left British politics riven between Leave and Remain, Tory and Labour, London and Brussels.

Paul Hackett/Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at 10 Downing Street, in central London on Wednesday.

Fourteen years ago, after Britain's Conservatives suffered two successive defeats by Tony Blair's Labour Party, Theresa May took her Tories to task for their failures to more widely reflect the British mainstream.

"There's a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us? 'The Nasty Party,'" she said in an address to a party conference.

Today, Mrs. May is the new prime minister of a Britain that appears more divided than ever. The country's referendum last month over whether to leave the European Union was particularly "nasty," leaving divides not just between the victorious Leave and frustrated Remain camps.

Even voters who sought to leave the EU are themselves divided: some cite national sovereignty as the main issue, some immigration, and others a general sense of being ignored by the political elites.

That leaves May with the task of healing these divisions, amid competing forces: the party's desire to move on from the referendum, versus the feeling that May is not quite Euroskeptical enough.

“The task of the new prime minister is reconciliation,” says Stephen Booth, co-director of Open Europe, a think tank that stayed neutral on the Brexit question. “You can’t reconcile everyone, but it will have to be enough people – people who supported both leave and remain.”

Tory turmoil

May's foremost task will be to salve the wounds within her own party.

There has long been an internal debate among Conservatives over whether to break away from the EU. Former Prime Minister David Cameron called the Brexit referendum in order to resolve the debate once and for all, but instead it appears to have opened the gap wider.

May herself toed Mr. Cameron's government line and campaigned for Remain, but is widely thought to have personally supported Leave. Now, she will similarly have to reach out to both sides if she wants to keep the Tories whole. Uniting the party will mean compromise, but this may prove difficult.

May has long positioned herself as a moderate figure, her political compass seeming closer to former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair than to the restive right-wing of her own party, a group for which May has had harsh words in the past.

Economist George Magnus, who opposed leaving the EU, says May’s refrain, "Brexit means Brexit," has been to reassure her critics. “All her statements will be pored over by the hard-line Brexiteer rump.”

May does have some conservative credentials that could help win over the Tory right wing.

As Home Secretary, May took a tough line on immigration and continued to do so in her campaign for the Conservative leadership, refusing to guarantee that EU citizens currently living in Britain would retain the right to remain. May this year used her powers to establish an annual earnings threshold of £35,000 ($46,600) for non-EU migrants, while a tribunal found the government had wrongly deported 48,000 students from non-EU countries.

May’s tough talk is not surprising: Home Secretary is one of the most difficult jobs in British politics, often resulting in the end of the incumbent’s career. May held the office for six years; longer than any Home Secretary in half a century.

Appeasing Brexiters

So far, May's first appointees to her ministerial cabinet are a mixture of those who supported both sides. But she has tapped several notable Euroskeptics for important posts, including Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. She also created the post of Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, which will be headed by David Davis, who campaigned vigorously to leave.

Further, May has ruled out calling a snap general election. Calling an election could strengthen her mandate – prime ministers holding office without winning a general election tend to have more limited clout.

But doing so would likely be viewed by hardened Euroskeptics as an attempt to legitimize a future fudge on Brexit. As things stand, the majority of MPs supported the Remain campaign, and a general election with strong showing for those politicians who support the EU had been suggested by some as a way of overturning the referendum result. The resulting uncertainty could also panic the financial markets, already spooked by the Brexit vote. For now, May seems to want to steady the ship of state.

But further difficulty will arise for May depending on what kind of exit from the EU she can deliver.

Most commentators expect Britain to attempt to join the free trade zone of the European Economic Area (EEA) by rejoining the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which it left in 1973. The EEA is co-governed by the EU and EFTA, but EFTA is very much the junior partner. EFTA countries that want to trade freely with the EU must accept the bulk of EU law and allow EU migration.

Any such move could infuriate those Conservative hardliners – and those voters – whose Euroskepticism is based on desire to lower immigration.

Conservative Member of the European Parliament Dan Hannan, one of the leading liberal voices supporting Brexit in his party, says immigration is not the issue many in the media claim it is.

“By far, the top issue was democracy – or ‘sovereignty,’ depending on how you put the question" in polls, he says. "Immigration was a very distant second. Very few expect or want a cessation of inward migration.”

Remain, left over

If Mr. Hannan is right, this however suggests another kind of rift between Leavers and Remainers: one of a lack of willingness to understand one another. Many on the Remain side have claimed the Leave vote was motivated by racially inspired animus.

May will need to bridge this gap at least, though how she can do this in the face of such a polarized vote remains to be seen. However, May’s promise to deliver "an economy that works for everyone” suggests one possible route: concentrating on creating economic center ground. May has argued for the need to tackle income inequality and appointing workers’ representatives to company board, marking her out as significantly different to her predecessor on economic issues.

Turbulent times may lie ahead, however. Newly appointed Finance Minister Philip Hammond said Thursday that Britain would leave the European single market as a result of the vote and that the country would then have to renegotiate access.

The writer Richard North, who has long proposed Britain gradually disengage with the EU and join the EEA bloc in a process he calls a flexible exit or "flexcit,” said that May’s team would do well to extend the deadline for exiting, mandated by the EU to be two years after a county gives notice. Then she should spend as long as possible getting the details of trade deals right, he argues.

“Immigration is really [only] symbolic: it’s the idea that we lost control. We could do a deal [with the EU] and get quotas and this would help with the symbolism,” he says.

'I wish it was a joke'

But May might have increased the difficulty of making a deal with Brussels after her appointment of the flamboyant Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. Mr. Johnson, a former journalist, led the Brexit campaign, though he only committed to the Leave case shortly before the referendum was announced.

Mr. Johnson is a popular, if divisive, figure and has a history of saying undiplomatic things about world leaders. He is markedly unpopular with EU leaders, having come to be viewed as the charismatic figure who caused the Leave side to triumph.

Speaking on the radio after Johnson's appointment, his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault called him a liar.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier meanwhile gave a speech criticizing those politicians who campaigned for Brexit only to "bolt and not take responsibility.… Instead they went to play cricket" – a clear reference to Johnson, who made no public statement after the referendum but was photographed playing the sport.

Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, tweeted: ”I wish it was a joke, but I fear it isn’t.”

Johnson’s presence in the government team is highly symbolic. But it is no guarantee that May intends to do any more than play hardball with the EU. Speaking before the appointment of Mr. Johnson, economist George Magnus said May’s recent statements indicate a possible opening for more compromises after an election.

“Supposing, in her first year as prime minister, she resonates with people, who knows? It’s hard to tell what she might be able to persuade the British people to accept [in a general election].”

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