15 July 2016

The Prime Minister faces more serious issues than the arrangement of her cabinet


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The phrase “a week is a long time in politics” has been so overused lately it has almost ceased to have any meaning at all. Nonetheless, Britain’s political landscape has radically shifted in the past seven days. Last Friday, two hopefuls for Tory leader were getting ready to spend eight weeks battling it out. Since then, one has dropped out, David Cameron has resigned and moved out of Downing Street, a new Prime Minister has been invited by Her Majesty the Queen to lead the country, and the upper echelons of government have been gutted and restocked with ranks of unexpected faces. Truly, Britain does not mess around.

On Wednesday evening Theresa May swiftly stepped up as the second woman to become Britain’s Prime Minister. With her appointment, the UK becomes the fifth OECD country to have had more than one female head of government. The British news cycle yesterday centred almost exclusively on her ruthlessly efficient cabinet reshuffle, which expelled Tory heavyweights such as former Chancellor George Osborne and former Justice Secretary Michael Gove, both of whom had harboured hopes of leadership. There was something satisfactorily tidy about the resulting cabinet: a state-school educated woman in a same-sex relationship heading up Education, Women and Equalities; two vocal Brexiteers in charge of the new departments for Exiting the EU and International Trade; Boris Johnson, Britain’s most well-known political export, put in charge of the Foreign Office. And Andrea Leadsom, who during the referendum campaign assured farmers they would be better off outside of the EU, has been appointed to Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, where one imagines she will have to have some awkward conversations explaining the withdrawal of EU farming subsidies.

Then last night, tragedy struck in the French city of Nice – a wakeup call to both Mrs May and the press that Britain’s new Prime Minister faces more serious issues than the arrangement of her cabinet. During the festivities for Bastille Day, a holiday celebrating liberty and freedom, a lorry ploughed through the crowds and killed at least 84 people, injuring many more. At the time of writing, there are unconfirmed reports that IS has claimed responsibilty, but this has not come through any official channel.

Theresa May built her leadership campaign on the idea that she was the candidate you’d want at the helm during a storm. She might not be inspirational, but she was experienced, sensible and clear-headed. And now Britons, even those who do not support her or the Tories, are breathing a sigh of relief that it is Mrs May in charge, and not one of her more volatile opponents. France is reeling from a brutal attack and Britain’s security is at risk, making May’s “safe pair of hands” more relevant at the end of her first full day in office than she could have imagined. Yesterday, the French Foreign Minister issued a flurry of insults expressing his disgust at Boris Johnson’s appointment as Foreign Secretary. That all seems very long ago now.

As May calls an emergency Cobra meeting and the new cabinet ministers adjust to their roles, one man’s swift exit from the political stage has been almost forgotten. What is to become of David Cameron, and how is his legacy to be remembered? This week, his departure as Prime Minister was cemented in the public consciousness by the whimsical tune he hummed after announcing his resignation, and by his final, vigorous Prime Minister’s Questions, in which he assured the public that Larry the Downing Street Cat would remain at Number 10. Books are already being written about this period in British history, and about the “essay-crisis Prime Minister” who gambled his fortune on the EU and lost. My guess is that we will miss Cameron more than we realise, probably more than he will miss us.

Three weeks ago, the morning after the referendum, I wrote “Britain has a clean slate – now we must decide what we will do with it”. We do not yet have an answer, but recent events have revealed that Prime Minister Theresa May is sure to make her mark on the future of the UK.

Rachel Cunliffe is Deputy Editor of CapX.