New PM must tackle troubled Tory legacy

Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Theresa May announced, with great emotion, last week that she will be resigning as Conservative Party leader on June 7. 

While she will stay on as prime minister until at least July, her time in office is now ending with an unfortunately lousy legacy. 

So with the gun soon to be fired on the selection of a new Conservative leader, and by extension prime minister, attention is rightly turning to the massive agenda s/he faces. 

Firstly and foremostly, this comprises tackling the damning legacy of May and David Cameron which has seen the shambles over Brexit, but also wider political drift, and the possibility of the United Kingdom itself unravelling.

This leaves a huge in-box and the tragedy is that this troubled political inheritance was by no means inevitable, and stems in large part from May and Cameron’s own unwise decisions in office. 

On Brexit, for instance, the EU referendum Cameron called was not one of necessity, and this was compounded by his failure to allow the Civil Service to conduct - prior to the 2016 plebiscite - any planning in the event of a ‘Leave’ win.

Calling a referendum in these circumstances proved to be a reckless gamble that destroyed his premiership. And in the last three years, May has failed to pick up the pieces and secure a domestic consensus around an EU withdrawal deal, exceptionally difficult as that task would have been for any politician to achieve.

Yet, the referendum vote is also having potentially big implications for the longer-term future not just of the EU, but also the United Kingdom itself. 

On the latter front, for instance, the UK’s current constitutional settlement has now become further destabilised, including with significantly increased likelihood of a second Scottish independence referendum.

Unlike England and Wales, both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU in 2016. 

This is a point constantly emphasised by parties such as Sinn Féin and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) which favour the further fragmentation of the United Kingdom.

Take the example of Scotland which in 2014 held an independence referendum, the aftermath of which has been an emboldened SNP. 

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP Leader, has previously argued that the United Kingdom should only exit the EU if all four constituent parts (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) individually voted to leave, an exceptionally unlikely scenario as she well knows.

Should the leave vote ultimately lead to the United Kingdom leaving the EU under the next prime minister, which still appears likely barring a so-called people’s ballot which reverses the decision, it would increase the likelihood of a second Scottish independence referendum. 

Sturgeon has sought to the lay the ground for such a post-Brexit plebiscite, and given the strong attachment that many Scottish people have to the EU, it is more likely than in 2014 that the country could vote for independence.

For those who continue to favour a strong United Kingdom, in a reformed EU, these developments are immensely concerning, and the end result is likely not just to have ramifications for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also the rest of the world too. 

For the fact that a weaker United Kingdom would no longer punch so strongly on the international stage would also adversely affect its ability to bolster international security and prosperity at a time when both remain fragile.

Take the example of potential Scottish independence which would undermine the UK’s influence in multiple ways, including its voice in key international forums from the United Nations, G7/8, G20, and NATO.

 

As former Conservative prime minister John Major has argued, the union would be perceived to be harmed “if a chunk of it voluntarily chose to leave . . . the voice of Britain . . . would be growing weaker because we would have had a political fracture of a most dramatic nature ”.

Perhaps most prominently, the break-up of the union could be seized upon by some non-permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), and/or other UN members, to catalyse a review of UK’s membership of the council. 

To be sure, reform of UNSC is overdue, however, Scottish independence could see this issue being decided upon less favourable terms for Britain than might otherwise be the case.

Budgetary cuts forced by the loss of Scotland’s tax base could also impact the UK’s sizeable overseas aid budget which promotes massive goodwill abroad. 

The United Kingdom is one of the world’s largest providers of international aid after the United States, and is one of the few G7 states to adhere to an internationally agreed target of spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid. 

Moreover, a UK Parliamentary Committee has rightly warned that losing the Scottish tax base could lead to further budgetary cuts to the armed forces.

Taken overall, the new Conservative leader will have to tackle as best s/he can May and Cameron’s lousy legacy.

Key tasks will be resolving the Brexit shambles in the national interest, and also preventing the breakup of the United Kingdom. 

Failure to achieve these goals would mean that the nation would no longer punch so strongly on the international stage, adversely affecting its ability to bolster international security and prosperity at a time when both remain fragile.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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