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.

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