The priorities confronting the new prime minister will to some extent depend on who it is. While it seems likely that the Conservatives will form a minority government, it is not clear who will lead it. While a Labour-led coalition is unlikely, it is not impossible.Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have a different focus on what matters most to the UK. Moreover, the priorities of the new government will also be shaped by the extent to which it has to depend on other parties, and which ones, to secure a majority. But certain challenges will be common to whoever wins.
Theresa May claimed that she called the snap election to secure a solid majority and the authority to allow her to negotiate the terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union. It is therefore ironic the extent to which Brexit has not featured in the election campaign. The focus on security issues was inevitable given the Manchester and London terrorist attacks. However, the extent to which the opposition were able to play up the national health service and social issues in general was the fault of Theresa May herself. One consequence has been that the British voters are no clearer now on what Brexit means than they were at the start of the campaign. Neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn have explained in detail how they will approach the Brexit negotiations, or indeed what their priorities or red lines would be. The inevitable suspicion is that neither is all together clear themselves.
Whoever forms the next government will have to name their negotiating delegation, and formulate both their objectives and their negotiating strategy. Although initial negotiations are scheduled to begin this month, in practice they will have until the German elections in the autumn to sort out their detailed positions. The preconditions laid down by Brussels for the negotiations (that negotiations on a trade agreement can only begin once the terms of Britain’s exit have been agreed; that the position of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in the EU must be established; that Britain must pay a divorce settlement; and that the position of the frontier between Northern and Southern Ireland be agreed) may prove less difficult for a new British government than many have thought. Indeed, one of the major reasons that Theresa May has not wanted to go into detail about her negotiating position may be that she is willing to concede most of this, haggling only about how much money Britain must pay. Whoever forms the new government will lack the clear negotiating mandate that Theresa May sought.
Britons, possibly because of the history of IRA terrorism, have a tradition of taking terrorist attacks in their stride. They are willing to be convinced that Islamic terrorism, although awful, is not as bad as the IRA and Palestinian campaigns of the past. However, the three attacks in the past few weeks, two within a week of each other, have significantly changed attitudes. While the Conservatives have sought to take advantage of the attacks by stressing Jeremy Corbyn’s controversial record on security issues, the opposition parties have focused on cutbacks in police budgets and numbers. The security services have come under pressure in the media to explain why Islamic extremists already on their radar were allowed to carry out the attacks. The British public will expect the new government to launch new initiatives on security.
What these new initiatives will be will depend on who forms the government. Theresa May has made it clear she will take a hardline on Islamic extremism, cracking down on those who preach or support it. She has stated publicly that she is willing to curtail human and civil rights if this will improve security. In contrast, the opposition parties argue that the government and the security forces already have all the surveillance and other powers they need. To curtail human or civil rights would be to do the terrorists’ work for them. A non-Conservative government would, therefore, put the stress on increasing police spending and numbers and following up on the security services’ own reviews of their recent performance.
The Special Relationship
The special relationship with the US is in trouble. It did not appear that way in January. The inauguration of President Trump promised to be a major support for Britain’s exit from the EU. Trump himself an opponent of the EU, applauded Britain’s decision. During Theresa May’s visit to Washington he assured her that a free trade agreement with Britain would be a priority for the new administration. In return, Theresa May offered him a full state visit to the UK. Since then, it has all gone wrong. Trumps brutish behaviour and withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement is difficult for even a British Conservative government to swallow (much as the right wing of the Conservative party might applaud it). The leaks of intelligence in the US following the Manchester bombing infuriated the British security services. The criticism of London Mayor Sadiq Khan (implying he was complacent about Islamic terrorism) following the London Bridge attack has caused real offence in Britain, and not only on the centre-left. There are calls from across the political spectrum to cancel the invitation for a state visit,. Even if it goes ahead, it is possible that the Commons will block an address to both houses of Parliament.
The new government will need to decide how to recalibrate its relationship with the US, taking account of the risk of isolation given its withdrawal from the EU. The essential options are to line up with other “civilised” nations in isolating the Trump administration, maintaining a distance while out waiting Trump, or collaborating the Trump White House despite any distaste in the hope of bilateral benefits. The new government also want to take into account the risks to security and intelligence collaboration, all the more so if collaboration with EU countries weakens following Brexit.
Scotland and the State of the Union
Brexit has renewed the challenges to the British constitutional settlement, both in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Nicola Sturgeon has argued that Scotland should hold a new referendum on independence once the outcome of the Brexit negotiations are clear. Theresa May appears to have accepted this, which would mean a new vote in late 2019 or early 2020. However, the poor electoral results of the Scottish nationalists may reduce pressure for a new referendum. If there is one, the new British Prime Minister will hope that economic uncertainty and the doubtful prospects for an independent Scotland entering the European Union will convince the Scots to vote to remain in the Union. At the very least, the British Government will need to devolve further powers to the Scottish government. But the new Prime Minister will also have to finesse the issue of why Scots get to vote on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and the rest of Britain does not. The new Prime Minister will not want to risk the legal and constitutional limbo that a new general referendum on Brexit could produce if Britons vote against the terms of the divorce, but the calculation will again depend on how a new government is formed in Westminster and how long it lasts.
In Northern Ireland, the nationalist Sinn Fein has argued that Brexit has re-opened the question of unification. Like Scotland, N Ireland voted in favour of remaining in the EU (albeit by a smaller margin). The largest party in N Ireland, the Unionist DUP favoured Brexit. But following recent elections to the N Ireland Assembly, and with serious disagreements between Sinn Fein and the DUP, there are difficulties in forming a government. Post-Brexit, the border with the Republic is a major challenge. Although no one wants to reintroduce a hard border, reaching sustainable arrangements may prove difficult, especially if Britain ends up outside the EU Customs Union. But the costs of getting it wrong, including a return to violence, could be high. Finding a solution may be even harder if a new Conservative government in London is dependent on the votes of the DUP for its majority.
Health and Education
Although foreign audiences focus on foreign policy and Security challenges, the main preoccupations of the new Prime Minister are likely to be domestic. Despite Theresa May’s determination that the election campaign should focus on Brexit, her own mishandling of her manifesto proposals on financing social care made domestic social and educational policy more central. There is a wide feeling in the UK that the health and education systems are broken, and need both reform and increased funding. Any new government will be well aware how these issues appear to have resonated with the voters in the election campaign, especially among younger voters. Getting these issues right will be as important to the success of the new government as meeting the external challenges.
The challenges confronting the new Prime Minister amount to nothing less than redefining Britain’s identity and positioning in the world post-Brexit. Getting it right can offer new relationships with the EU, the US and the rest of the world. Getting it wrong risks isolation and decline.