Monumental task ahead for new PM Theresa May

Mr Cameron, seen here with his successor Theresa May, making his final appearance as British prime minister in Parliament yesterday.
Mr Cameron, seen here with his successor Theresa May, making his final appearance as British prime minister in Parliament yesterday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Besides managing Brexit, she must try to unite a divided party, nation

LONDON • Mr David Cameron entertained Parliament with a series of farewell quips in his last appearance as prime minister yesterday, before making way for Mrs Theresa May to take on the monumental task of extricating Britain from the European Union.

"This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. Other than one meeting this afternoon with Her Majesty the Queen, the diary for the rest of my day is remarkably light," Mr Cameron said to roars of laughter in a packed House of Commons.

At around 5pm (midnight Singapore time), after making a final statement outside the prime minister's residence at 10 Downing Street, Mr Cameron arrived at Buckingham Palace to formally hand in his resignation to the Queen. Mrs May was then to pay her own visit to the monarch to be formally entrusted with the job, before entering 10 Downing Street to become Britain's second woman prime minister after Mrs Margaret Thatcher.

Mr Cameron stepped down after Britons rejected his entreaties and voted in a June 23 referendum to quit the EU, weakening the 28-nation bloc and creating huge economic uncertainty because of the likely damage to trade and investment.

Apart from the task of executing Brexit, Mrs May must try to unite a divided party and nation in which many, on the evidence of the vote, feel angry with the political elite and left behind by globalisation.

 

Mr Cameron urged Mrs May to try to keep Britain close to the EU even while negotiating to leave it, following last month's Brexit vote. "The Channel will not get any wider once we leave the European Union and that is the relationship that we should seek, that would be good for the United Kingdom," he said.

He took the opportunity to trumpet his government's achievements in generating one of the fastest growth rates among Western economies, chopping the Budget deficit, creating 2.5 million jobs and legalising gay marriage. Yet his legacy will be overshadowed by his failed referendum gamble, which he had hoped would keep Britain at the heart of a reformed EU.

Mrs May, who has been interior minister for six years, is seen by her supporters as a safe pair of hands to steer the country through the disruptive Brexit process.

"I think around the Cabinet table yesterday the feeling was that we have our Angela Merkel," said Mr Jeremy Hunt, Health Secretary in Mr Cameron's team, which met for the last time on Tuesday.

SWAN SONG

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. Other than one meeting this afternoon with Her Majesty the Queen, the diary for the rest of my day is remarkably light.

MR DAVID CAMERON, to roars of laughter in a packed House of Commons.

"We have an incredibly tough, shrewd, determined and principled person to lead those (Brexit) negotiations for Britain," Mr Hunt told Sky News television.

German Chancellor Merkel will be Mrs May's most important counterpart on the continent as the Brexit process unfolds. Both women are renowned for their firmness, pragmatism and discipline.

Mrs May is expected to immediately start putting together a Cabinet, a complex balancing act in which she has to try to satisfy opposing camps in her party.

Before the referendum, she had campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU, albeit in a low-key fashion. Since the vote, she has repeatedly said "Brexit means Brexit" and her backers said she is determined to make the country's exit a success.

Mrs May has said she plans to set up a new government department to lead the process of quitting the EU, and this would be headed by someone who had campaigned for Brexit.

Despite pressure from other EU capitals to quickly start negotiating the terms of Britain's exit, Mrs May has said she would not be rushed into it. She is unlikely to trigger Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty - which will formally launch the process of separation and start the clock ticking on a two-year countdown to Britain's actual departure - until next year.

She is expected to promote women ministers to several senior roles, and Mr Cameron's long-serving Finance Minister, Mr George Osborne, could lose his job, according to media reports.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2016, with the headline 'Monumental task ahead for new PM Theresa May'. Print Edition | Subscribe