Theresa May might have imagined she’d have two months of hustings to refine policies and hone messages.
But our second female PM is being bundled quickly into Downing Street, with the most daunting to-do list any incumbent has faced since the Second World War.
Her first 100 days start immediately. Her mission: to bring stability and confidence to a queasy, divided nation.
She might be able to put off some of the big strategic decisions for a while. But they are daunting nonetheless. Other challenges are urgent.
May will need to appoint a cabinet straight away. This will include a mixture of Remain and Brexit ministers.
What jobs will be found for the Brexiteers? Chris Grayling, Liam Fox, David Davis and Priti Patel pledged firm allegiance in recent days and will be expecting favour in the reshuffle.
There will be a dedicated Secretary of State for Brexit, and it’s logical the job would go to one of the above.
Andrea Leadsom, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have all had reputations tarnished since the referendum. It’s unlikely that May could exclude them from the top jobs. But possible, given that relations between the new PM and all three are damaged.
The biggest decision, perhaps, is what to do with George Osborne. He’s one of the few in the current crop with genuine international recognition, and a slide across to the Foreign Office is possible. Philip Hammond – seen as a steady pair of hands with economic experience - could swap into the Treasury.
May will have an immediate window of opportunity to try to secure some international goodwill and begin to repair Britain’s battered global reputation. We can expect a comprehensive ring-round of world leaders in the first hours and further words of reassurance on the economy and financial markets.
She will also want to send an immediate signal that her government will not be defined exclusively by the process of EU withdrawal, with strong messages likely on future economic, social and democratic reform. “A society that works for everyone” is May’s pitch for the ‘One-Nation’ mantle.
May will likely hold early meetings with her new Brexit cabinet minister – probably looping in Oliver Letwin, who’s been setting up an embryonic Brexit unit in Whitehall. Her stated policy is there is no immediate need to trigger Article 50 – which begins the formal process of EU exit.
But May will want the new Secretary of State to come up with detailed scenarios and plans, setting out clear challenges and consequences associated with each withdrawal option.
On Thursday, the Bank of England is likely to cut interest rates. This would be a good day for the new Prime Minister to focus on economic reassurance.
Next Monday, the vote on renewal of Trident is scheduled in the Commons – a perfect chance to regather the Tories around an issue on which there’s party agreement. It’s also an early opportunity further to expose the deep and bitter divisions in Labour.
As May faces her first PMQs next Wednesday, she will want to demonstrate:
- Command of parliament
- Respect for the referendum result and commitment to seeing Brexit through
If she can do both, then any clamour for an early general election will be significantly reduced, although pressure from some quarters will continue. The new PM wants a period of stable government before launching into another public campaign.
A full set of ministerial appointments will be made within days. As with the cabinet appointments, the priority will be finding balance and healing the bitter wounds of the Brexit vote.
The key for May will be to have a smooth reshuffle process in the coming days and send MPs off in good cheer as parliament breaks for the summer next Thursday.
If she succeeds in steadying the ship and striking the right combination of calmness and confidence, then more attention will turn to the actual Brexit negotiations.
May will want to take as much heat and urgency out of the situation as possible, whilst demonstrating at every point that Brexit will happen. It’s unlikely we’ll see frantic shuttle diplomacy in the early weeks of her premiership. But May will need to begin developing strong personal relationships with other EU leaders for the testing struggles ahead.
New cabinet ministers will need to get stuck in, but they won’t be working from a fresh manifesto. May will face the danger of a policy void at the heart of her administration – with the new government tying up some of Cameron’s loose ends, whilst quickly scribbling new plans afresh.
Questions for departments:
- Health – what will happen to the long-delayed Childhood Obesity Strategy and will May soften any of the controversial seven-day NHS plans that triggered the doctors’ strike?
- Treasury – no emergency budget. But will there be some steps to soften austerity? Planning must begin immediately for the key Autumn Statement
- Home Office – with May becoming PM, expect continuity here. But the biggest, most charged issue (immigration) is so wrapped up with Brexit that meaningful early changes in policy are unlikely
- International Development – a new Secretary of State may face new questions about the commitment to spend 0.7% GDP on foreign aid – an issue which again flared up during the referendum
- BIS – urgent questions here over the plans to save the Tata plant in Port Talbot
- Energy – with EDF’s decision on the new Hinkley Point power station still in the balance, the slightest shift in policy here could have major implications
- Transport – as MP for Maidenhead, May has voiced concerns about Heathrow in the past. A decision on airport expansion can’t be put off for long
May’s first big moment on the world stage is September’s G20 summit in China.
The Conservative party conference comes at the beginning of October, followed by her first EU summit on 20th October. This is when pressure over Article 50 and the withdrawal process really builds.
By the end of the year, the government will want to establish clear ground-rules and principles for the Brexit negotiations, with an approximate timetable inked in.
Although much is still uncertain, some clues to May’s longer term policy issues have emerged already.
- Brexit – May has made clear that her government will want controls on freedom of movement from the EU. The question is how to balance that with access to the single market
- Austerity – the commitment to budget surplus by 2020 has already been dropped. A May government could slowly ease Osborne’s framework further
- Economy – May has called for a “proper industrial strategy”, treasury-backed bonds for infrastructure projects and, more radically, big changes to corporate governance with a clampdown on CEO pay and measures to ensure workers’ representation on company boards
- Housing – the new PM has made clear that building hundreds of thousands of new homes will be one of her biggest longer-term priorities
Ultimately, some or all of May’s policy programme will need to face the test of public opinion. The likelihood of another EU referendum seems to be receding, but a general election before 2020 still can’t be ruled out.