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Theresa May’s summer of discontent

July 17, 2017

AS Parliament goes into its summer recess, rumours swirl around Theresa May’s political future. British newspapers are full of speculation about a leadership struggle in the autumn among the ruling Conservative Party, with David Davis, the secretary of state for Brexit, emerging as the bookies’ favourite.

But senior Tories fear that if the bickering gets too intense, and there is no clear-cut winner, the crisis could well trigger fresh elections, a prospect that would probably usher in a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn. For a backbencher who has spent most of his political life in obscurity, this is a remarkable turnabout: before the June 8 elections, Labour trailed far behind the Conservatives and Corbyn’s personal approval ratings were abysmal.

A few weeks later, this has been reversed to the point that Corbyn is seen as hugely popular leader. May, on the other hand, has seen her image as a strong and effective PM shattered. So much so that Andrew Mitchell, David Davis’s closest political ally, was quoted as saying at The Spectator’s summer party that Mrs May “was dead in the water”. Although Davis has denied prime ministerial aspirations, he is known to be a very ambitious man.

George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer under David Cameron, and now editor of the Evening Standard, wrote recently: “Pity poor David Davis. For the first time in his political career he is trying to be loyal. But now the prospect of premiership looms, and he has to decide whether to reach out for the prize he has coveted for so long.”

This potential leadership struggle has thrown the Brexit negotiations into confusion as a weak and divided government has been unable to develop a coherent approach. While EU negotiators have presented the British with a number of working papers, their counterparts have yet to come up with counter-proposals.

However, as Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator said recently, “The clock is ticking”. What is blocking progress is the EU demand that the British government must first clear outstanding dues before discussions on a future trading relationship can start. This figure — popularly known as the divorce bill — has been estimated at up to 100 billion euros. British politicians across the spectrum reject this demand, and Boris Johnson, the secretary of state, has said the EU “can go whistle” for the money. Barnier retorted: “I can’t hear the sound of whistling, but I can hear the clock ticking.”

Whatever the final sum agreed upon, it is a fact that the UK, as a current member of the European Union, has certain financial obligations, including subsidies for various sectors and poorer member states. Corbyn has said he would pay “whatever is legally required”. One problem for Brexit supporters is that people like Johnson had promised a relief from the annual payment of billions of euros; now Brits are being told they must pay more to leave the club.

Another hurdle is the EU demand that the status of European citizens living and working in the UK must be clarified before they move forward with negotiations over a future trade deal. The current British offer on the table has been rejected as mean-spirited, with EU citizens being relegated to second-class status. Currently, around three million Europeans reside in the UK, and their future has become a bone of contention. Mrs May’s problem with giving them full citizenship rights is that they would then be allowed to send for their families, something that would breach the Brexit promise of “taking control of our borders”.

While these vexing political debates are taking place, positions on both sides of the Brexit referendum are hardening. The Remainers fear that a ‘hard’ Brexit will damage the British economy: already, the pound has fallen nearly 20pc, and inflation is higher than expected. The Bank of England has warned of a bumpy road ahead, and many major banks have threatened to move their operations to European financial capitals in case they cannot operate freely across the continent due to a hard Brexit.

As the government grapples with these realities and its own internal power struggle, Labour looks on with glee. Corbyn has repeatedly called for fresh elections in view of the lost Tory majority. May’s sordid deal for Democratic Unionist Party support has cost the exchequer a billion pounds, apart from other costly concessions. This has proven very unpopular with millions of public sector workers whose pay increase has been restricted to one per cent under the ongoing austerity policy. They remind May that just a few weeks ago, she had said she had no “magic money tree” to raise salaries but now seems to have found one to cling to power.

It is clear that the prime minister is out of her depth, unable to cope with the fallout of a disastrous election she had called unnecessarily. She is blamed by most of her MPs for her impetuous decision that has placed the Conservative government at risk. Add the complexities of Brexit, and you have a weak leader unable to knock heads in her cabinet to put together a united front.

All this confusion improves Labour’s chances of forming the next government. Rising prices and a falling pound do not make for a popular premier. As bad news emerges from the Brexit talks — as it is bound to — the ruling party’s prospects of finishing its term will be severely eroded and May’s leadership skills will be tested to the hilt. How she and her party will fare when Parliament reconvenes will depend on how the economy fares. Currently, the prospects don’t seem very good.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2017