News analysis

Britain's new leader might tilt party to the left

Mrs Theresa May, who takes over today as Britain's new Prime Minister, faces a daunting agenda: She has to negotiate her country's exit from the European Union (EU), a deeply controversial process. And she could be confronted with an economic downturn.

But Mrs May has already surprised political observers and legislators by indicating that such serious challenges won't prevent her from pushing through a broader agenda of social reforms which could tilt her ruling centre-right Conservatives to the left of politics, and increase the pressure on the opposition Labour Party.

With Labour in meltdown due to its own internal leadership battles, Mrs May has the option of dissolving the current Parliament and holding a snap general election, perhaps as early as November this year. That will boost her national legitimacy, give the government a fresh five-year mandate and hold out the tantalising opportunity of increasing the current 12-seat overall majority she enjoys in Britain's 650-seat Parliament.

But the odds still are against early ballots, partly because Mrs May is known to be cautious about electoral adventures, so negotiations with the EU beckon, and probably sooner than she wants.

She would prefer to wait until the end of this year or even the beginning of next year before formally presenting her fellow European leaders with notice that Britain intends to quit the EU, a necessary legal step before the haggling over the "divorce settlement" can start.

But the Europeans resent delay and are suspicious of Britain's attempt to engage in secret negotiations with individual EU member-states. "We should enter negotiations as quickly as possible because we need to limit uncertainty," said Mr Pierre Moscovici, the European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs.

Mrs May's softer social approach has startled Britain's business community. But it makes perfect political sense, for it allows the ruling Conservatives to attract disaffected working-class voters who no longer feel attached to the opposition Labour Party. And it also undercuts support for the UK Independence Party, a populist movement which thrives on national wealth disparities and on a sense of injustice felt by many British workers.

Mrs May is careful to keep her options open. Apart from reassuring her own anti-EU backbenchers that "Brexit means Brexit" and that "Britain will make a success of life outside the EU", she has said nothing about her negotiating position. Still, it's not a secret that Britain wants to retain full access to Europe's markets once it leaves the EU, but also wants to put up restrictions on the free movement of EU workers into Britain. And that would bring Mrs May into a direct clash with Europe's other powerful female leader, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has already warned that she won't tolerate British attempts to "cherry-pick" between European benefits and obligations.  

Still, Mrs May has already served notice that she doesn't intend to have her premiership held hostage by the EU, by hinting at a broader reform agenda for the British economy and politics. In her first substantial speech delivered just before taking office, Mrs May vowed that her government's mission statement will be "a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few".

Although short on specifics, Mrs May appealed for fundamental changes in the market economy to protect workers "who find themselves exploited by unscrupulous bosses" and those who "found themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration".

Claiming that the recent British referendum which resulted in the country's exit from the EU was also a vote for "serious domestic change", Mrs May complained that "so many of our political and business leaders have responded by showing that they still didn't get it". She vows that her government will respond to popular demand for a more "responsible" capitalist system by restricting the ability of companies to pay their bosses high salaries, by blocking predatory takeover of key companies and by implementing a "proper industrial strategy" to boost Britain's manufacturing sector which has been shrinking for over half a century.

A key feature of her policy may be to force medium-sized and big companies to accept a representative of their workforce on the management board; that is the practice in Germany, and it is often hailed as producing corporate decisions which take into account workers' interests, rather than just profitability calculations.

Coming from a politician who, as Home Secretary for the past six years, cultivated a hard-line image on immigration and law-and-order issues, Mrs May's softer social approach has startled Britain's business community. But it makes perfect political sense, for it allows the ruling Conservatives to attract disaffected working-class voters who no longer feel attached to the opposition Labour Party. And it also undercuts support for the UK Independence Party, a populist movement which thrives on national wealth disparities and on a sense of injustice felt by many British workers.

"It's not anti-business to suggest that big business needs to change," she said.

Politicians in both Britain and Europe will have to get used to a British premier who sounds and looks conservative, but who may actually be a social revolutionary. And they will also have to get used to a leader who hates sexist remarks and champions women's rights.

"Theresa, you look sexy," a fellow European home minister told Mrs May at a recent international meeting. She looked the man in the eye without flinching, sat down, opened her briefing files and replied curtly: "Now, let's get to business."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2016, with the headline 'New British PM might tilt party to the left'. Print Edition | Subscribe