Tasks before Theresa May
Mrs. Theresa May took over as Prime Minister of Britain on Wednesday last week as direct fallout of the historic referendum in which British voters decided to take their country out of the European Union, EU. Following the vote in which voters decided by 52% to 48% to leave the EU, Prime Minister David Cameron resigned as leader of the ruling Conservative Party. Mrs. May became party leader unopposed and Queen Elizabeth II then invited her to form a government. She thus becomes the second female British Prime Minister after Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, who was Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990.
More than 30 million people or 71.8% of voters turned out to vote in the referendum, the highest turnout in a UK-wide vote since the 1992 general election. Cameron made a major gamble by calling the referendum in order to silence Euro-sceptics within his own party. Though he rejected calls for a referendum in 2012, he announced a year later that his Conservative government would hold one if re-elected in 2015. It was a big gamble and he lost it, signalling an end to Britain’s 43-year membership of the EU. The ‘leave’ campaigners wanted Britain to take control of its borders to lessen the flow of immigrants from poorer EU member countries and beyond. Those who campaigned for a stay, led by Cameron and including Mrs. May, argued that it was in Britain’s best economic and security interests to do so.
Mrs. May’s first task now is to trigger the mechanism for Britain’s exit from EU. She restated her commitment that “Brexit means Brexit” but she asked European leaders for time to prepare for the negotiations to take Britain out of the EU. Even while engaging in that complex move, May must deal with the fallout within Britain, such as the people of Scotland saying they voted to stay in the EU and may be considering another independence referendum soon, after the one in September 2014 where its voters chose to remain in Britain. Within two days of taking over as Prime Minister Theresa May visited Scotland to see First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. She said she would not trigger Article 50 that would set the formal exit process until she had agreed to a ‘UK approach’ with Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland leaders.
Mrs. May has the added problem that she does not have a direct mandate from voters, since she did not win a general election. This was the same situation that hobbled Prime Minister Gordon Brown when he took over from Tony Blair. The Brexit vote also created inter-communal ill-feelings in Britain, with foreigners and minorities being harassed on the streets and asked to leave the country. We expect Mrs. May to calm tempers and protect minorities in Britain.
Exit from the EU means Britain must renegotiate hundreds if not thousands of trade, cultural, immigration and other agreements with countries all over the world. Nigeria and other African countries expect that in the upcoming renegotiation, they would not be made the hold the hat as the British pick up the pieces from Brexit. British and not African voters voted for Brexit and if there is an economic price to pay, they should not expect us to be the ones to pay it.
Britain’s exit from EU is not the end of Britain’s position as a very important political, commercial, cultural and security player on the world scene, only that it must renegotiate and redefine this role for itself where it used to do so in the comfortable confines of the European Union. While Mrs Theresa May navigates her way around, we expect her to maintain Britain’s historically friendly relations with Nigeria and Africa.