‘In weakness lies strength.’ This phrase from theology epitomises the predicament of two pastors’ daughters. Britain’s Theresa May and Germany’s Angela Merkel are European leaders held in place by precariousness. First we shall deal with the UK prime minister. An article tomorrow looks at the German chancellor.
Britain has been here before. It’s difficult to recall that John Major – before May’s predecessor David Cameron, the last Conservative premier – was one of the longer-serving Conservative leaders (1990-97) of the past 200 years. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s forced departure in November 1990 split the Conservative party. Major was an unshowy ‘dark horse’ candidate, lower middle class, lacking charisma but with keen instincts for winning leadership contests.
Each year of Major’s premiership fell prey to rumours of revolt and leadership challenges. Major saw them all off, until he succumbed to Tony Blair’s landslide 1997 election win for Labour. Major presided over the creation of the European Union with the 1991-92 Maastricht Treaty, Britain’s traumatic 1992 exit from the exchange rate mechanism and the slow process of forming the euro. Benefiting from a solid relationship with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Major won important opt-outs from Maastricht over the single currency and social legislation but got no thanks from his party’s vehement eurosceptics.
May is beset by similar drama. The Conservatives’ decades-long agony over Thatcher’s succession shows no sign of ending. The party is reconciled neither to Europe nor to itself. May’s efforts to get a ‘halfway house’ deal over leaving the EU brings contempt from all sides. Major tried to bring off a similar feat by ratifying Maastricht while playing no part in the euro. May’s task of engineering Britain’s EU’s departure is much more daunting and radical than Major’s balancing act. The difference is that May’s Conservative competitors do not hate her, as they did Major – they simply want (or think they want) her job.
Cameron failed in his futile attempt at shutting up his party ‘constantly banging on about Europe’. He exited, pursued by Brexit. May was lucky to win the succession fight without party hustings. She promised Brexit and reform of the capitalist order. But she had neither prepared for, nor apparently had the stamina for delivering, either aim.
May blundered expensively in calling the premature June 2017 general election. Now Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, hangs Damocles-like over the Conservatives. But she soon realised that this weakness gave her strength. May has proceeded to negotiate a soft Brexit with a long transition period, an option universally preferred by British business and trade unions, in a rare show of unity.
May has to confront Conservative Brexit ideologues seeking their idea of freedom: a sharp ‘cliff edge’ EU break. Her rivals’ disorganisation and disunity work in her favour. Her weapons are ambiguity, delay and hesitation. She knows that, as soon as she admits her plan for a softer path for withdrawal, all hell will break loose.
So May has to prevaricate and refuse to take control. There will be no cleansing of the cabinet, no throwing down of gauntlets. She hopes that, whatever the headlines, the Conservative backbenchers will refuse to trigger a leadership fight and that the storm will pass. Party grandees know a succession contest may not end as swiftly and cleanly as in 2016. Months of infighting would damage unity further. It would not settle what kind of Brexit the British would like, let alone get. If a general election followed, neither the Conservatives nor Labour would secure a majority. A fragile coalition would have to reopen Brexit negotiations with only months left before the March 2019 deadline.
That dire prospect keeps May in power. As the countdown advances, her position may appear to be crumbling. In fact – barring true calamities – it is likely to strengthen.
Lord (Meghnad) Desai is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Chair of the OMFIF Advisers Council.