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A return to stability?
For almost a month, there has been massive uncertainty in the economy and politics of the UK. A vote to Leave the European Union has jeopardised the unity of the Kingdom, unseated a Prime Minister and torn the fabric that just about kept the Labour party together.
But order seems to have returned in the figure of Theresa May. Whereas many feared the internal divisions of the Conservatives after the vote, the new Prime Minister has calmed the situation. The Remain / Leave divide inside the Tory party has been bridged by a pro-Remain leader who insists that “Brexit means Brexit”.
Indeed, it was Mrs May’s ability to unite Conservatives that opened the door to 10 Downing Street: her final opponent in the leadership race, Andrea Leadsom, dropped out after receiving the backing of only 84 MPs to May’s 199.
Since then May has almost entirely reshuffled the Cabinet. Some familiar heads, such as Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, remain but many others have rolled - including Michael Gove and George Osborne.
With party problems put aside - the EU had long been the Tories’ topic of disagreement but the debate has now been settled - the new PM has sought to mend the ties that have been the most weakened by the Brexit vote.
Her first trip was to Scotland, Home of the Brave but also of the Disenfranchised. Last month Scottish voters backed Remain by an outstanding 24 percentage point majority, and the SNP has played up the prospects of holding a second independence referendum after claiming the nation was being pulled out of the EU against its will.
There, Mrs May met Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Whilst the pair had diverging views on a second “Indyref”, the meeting was described as “positive” by the PM, who asserted that she wanted Scotland to be “fully engaged” in the Brexit process.
Next on Mrs May’s list of travels was Berlin, home to another stateswoman, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. During a joint press conference, the PM explained that the UK was in no rush to trigger Article 50 and that despite Brexit she would want the country to “maintain the closest possible economic relationship with Germany”.
She added that the principles of free market and liberal economics should guide negotiations of the UK’s departure. That can be interpreted as a signal to British and German businesses that the tariff-free status quo will be upheld, after worries had been expressed by German industry representatives and their UK counterparts over possible trade barriers.
Today, May will be talking to French President François Hollande in what is predicted to be a more conflictual encounter than that with Merkel. That is because Hollande is facing mounting pressure in domestic politics from the Front National, a far-right party that champions the idea of the EU’s unravelling and that praised Britons for voting Brexit in June.
But talk is better than no talk with France. Furthermore, although Hollande will not be interested in a warm meeting, the President won’t want to isolate himself from the Brexit negotiations after Chancellor Merkel’s cooperative stance.
On her return to London, the new Prime Minister will probably be pleased by her diplomatic tour of Europe’s most important leaders. Her grin will turn into a smirk considering the state of her political opposition in Westminster.
Wednesday’s Prime Minister's Questions portrayed the true state of British politics: on one side of the despatch box was a healing Conservative party which, despite the personal frictions between some of its MPs, cheered any of Mrs May’s announcements and jeered those of Mr Corbyn’s.
But on the other side of the aisle the scene could not have been more different. Ever since the Brexit vote, Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn has faced even stauncher opposition from an overwhelming majority of his MPs, who recently tabled a motion of no confidence against him. The leader is now set to face Owen Smith, a former member of his Shadow Cabinet, in a leadership race.
This plays well into the hands of Mrs May, who will have little trouble in tabling contested bills considering the total disintegration of Mr Corbyn’s authority among parliamentarians. She has already pounced on the opening by pressing a vote on the renewal of Britain’s Trident nuclear programme, an issue that has divided Labour MPs for months as Corbyn rejects the renewal, whereas 140 of his MPs backed it on Monday.
Every cloud has a silver lining: for Mrs May, Brexit might have meant the end of the country’s membership of the European Union but it has also gifted her the role of Prime Minister. Now, she has more freedom than any of the last Conservative leaders in the House of Commons. We will find out in the months and years to come what that means for the British people.
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