Analysis

Theresa May Is in No Position to Deal With U.K.'s Unfinished Business

Theresa May, branded the 'Queen of Denial,' remains prime minister, but she might now be too weak to deal with Brexit, the terror threat and a deeply divided Britain

Protesters outside Downing Street in London call on Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May to resign following the General Election results, June 9, 2017.
Rick Findler/AP

LONDON – In Britain there is no period of transition after a general election. Everything takes place hours after the result is known. If the winner is the serving prime minister, he or she makes a quick tour of party headquarters early in the morning to the cheers of party activists, then a meeting with the Queen to kiss her hand and receive her permission to form a government. After that the premier returns to Downing Street to a standing ovation of the prime ministers office’s civil servants on the stairs inside. If the leader of the opposition wins, the sequence is much the same. Only the entrance to Downing Street takes place a couple of hours later, after a moving company has swiftly removed all the belongings of the by now former prime minister.

Thursday night’s result has led to neither of these scenarios. Theresa May is back in Downing Street, and has met the Queen, who has given her permission to form what will be either a minority or a coalition government. But no one is clapping their hands. Her gamble on an early election spectacularly failed and the Conservative Party has lost 12 seats and with them its small majority in parliament. The knives are out for her in the party. Meanwhile, the Labour Party is jubilant, having defied all expectations and gained 31 seats. But they are still 57 seats smaller than the Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn remains for now leader of the opposition, albeit with a greatly enhanced stature.

Following an inconclusive election, there is much unfinished business for Britain. May promised, following the extremely disappointing result to work in order to ensure “a period of stability” for Britain. This will be very difficult to deliver. She is expected to strike a deal with Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, whose ten seats in parliament will allow her a majority, but it will still mean that every vote will be closely fought for, unless May can get her entire fractious party to support her or create temporary agreements with additional parties who are not inclined to cooperate with her, after she branded them as members of "a coalition of crisis."

The first issue on her agenda is the most difficult of all. Negotiations with the European Union on the conditions of Britain’s departure from the European Union are to start in eleven days. The EU’s leaders have already made it clear that they intend Britain to pay dearly for breaking with Europe. May promised during the election to drive a tough bargain and that she was prepared to walk away if one wasn’t on the table, saying that “no deal is better for Britain than a bad deal.” Her negotiating position is now dramatically weakened without a majority in parliament and her only choice of a coalition pattern, the DUP will demand that any deal allows for an open border between the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland, giving yet another bargaining chip to Brussels.

But Brexit is far from the only headache troubling May. She now has to set out a detailed set of policies, both domestic and foreign, in the “Queen’s Speech” which sets the agenda for every new government and must be voted upon by parliament. A prime minister who has just won a majority simply delivers a summary of the party’s election manifesto. However, in the short and disastrous campaign fought by the Conservatives, May was forced to retreat from a key policy on the funding of social care for the elderly and the party’s plans for taxation remained unclear and contradictory.

On the eve of the election May presented an ambitious plan for fighting Islamist radicalism in the wake of the terror attacks in Manchester and London. She announced that in cases where security concerns clash with human rights issues, security will be paramount. Any legislation in this vein will automatically be opposed by the opposition parties. She may try to reach out to the opposition for some form of consensus but Corbyn’s views on counter-terror are the opposite of hers. Putting any policy in motion will mean a series of compromises between May and her angry party and with the new coalition partners as well. It will further tax her already compromised leadership.

Theresa May, U.K. prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, delivers a speech as her husband Philip May, watches outside number 10 Downing Street in London, U.K., on Friday, June 9, 2017.
Simon Dawson / Bloomberg

May also has to decide whether to go ahead with the planned state visit of U.S. President Donald Trump to Britain in the next few months. Trump, who engaged this week in bizarre Twitter brawling with London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan in the wake of Saturday night’s terror attack at London Bridge where eight people were murdered. May, who like every other world leader has tried to adjust to the new erratic president in the White House, has made an attempt at building a friendly relationship with him and refrained from criticising him for his remarks against Khan. Trump has made it clear that he wants a full-blown state visit, including a ride in the Royal carriage down The Mall. The U.S.-U.K. “special relationship” is crucial for Britain, especially now that it is leaving the EU, but for May, welcoming the deeply unpopular president as prime minister with a seriously diminished public mandate could well be a step to far.

Many in the Conservative Party are hoping that she will resign soon and make way for a more popular leader who can attempt at uniting a deeply divided Britain, boosting the Tories’ standing and making sure that a resurgent Corbyn doesn’t make it to Downing Street in the next election, which could happen sooner than expected giving their lack of a majority. May’s brief media appearances since the election result did not indicate she has any plans of leaving, winning her in London’s Evening Standard, now edited by her former rival who she removed from the position of Chancellor of Exchequer, George Osborne, the headline “Queen of Denial.” She is in no position now to deal with Britain’s unfinished business.