Tuesday 19 November 2019

'Iron Lady' May shows her mettle as she seeks Brexit mandate with election U-turn

A woman carries a bookie's board after Theresa May announced an election Photo: REUTERS / Peter Nicholls
A woman carries a bookie's board after Theresa May announced an election Photo: REUTERS / Peter Nicholls
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

One of the criticisms routinely levelled at women in senior leadership roles is that they are not decisive - or at least not as decisive as our male counterparts.

That's one charge that can't now be levelled against British Prime Minister Theresa May who stunned the world yesterday morning when she called a surprise snap election.

The former home secretary caught her critics and the markets off guard when a press conference was called for 11.15am. The rumour mill offered all manner of reasons for the sudden hot take outside Downing Street, including unfounded speculation that she was about to retire on health grounds.

Instead Mrs May, who saw off all manner of ditherers and flappers on her uncontested path to leadership of the Tory party - think Boris Johnson for one - strode outside Number 10 some 10 minutes early with the confidence of a punter who had placed a bet they already won.

If the gamble does pay off and there's every chance it will, Mrs May may yet steal the 'Iron Lady' crown from her late predecessor Margaret Thatcher.

Since taking office last year in the aftermath of Brexit, Mrs May repeatedly pledged that there would be no early election, insisting that Britain needed stability.

Her subsequent U-turn yesterday was almost Trumpesque in style. But unlike many of the U-turns perpetrated by US President Donald Trump, there is substance to Mrs May's sudden change of heart.

Mandate is the main one.

Brexit has divided the UK.

For all of the emporial rhetoric and sovereignty set-tos, the decision to leave the European Union has rocked the United Kingdom. To broker the hard yards of Brexit and secure the best deal for her country, Mrs May needs to quell dissent within her own party and ensure there are no questions hanging over her premiership when negotiating key positions.

Winning her own general election will help square this circle.

It's the opposition too. Since the 2015 election, when former Tory party leader David Cameron won a fairly slim majority in the House of Commons, the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn has collapsed in the polls, if not in all but name.

Only a fool would place their faith in polls, but several polls over the last week have put the lead at over 20 percentage points. May is right to sense that now may be the best time to exploit Labour's all-too-obvious weaknesses and deliver what in all likelihood will be a stomping majority for the Tories.

The economy is also a factor.

Yesterday Mrs May cited economic strength as a sign of her government's success. "Despite predictions of immediate financial and economic danger, since the referendum we have seen consumer confidence remain high, record numbers of jobs, and economic growth that has exceeded all expectations," she said.

However, Brexit is beginning to bite, with inflation starting to take its toll in the UK. Prices have increased by 2.3pc in the past year and the weak pound has pushed up import costs for many UK businesses.

The proposed 'Barista Visa' to allow young Europeans work in Britain's hospitality, retail and other similar industries, exposed the futility of aspects of the Brexiteers' histrionic stance towards immigrants on whom it relies heavily to provide vital public services such as health. And there was a comical air to much of the British media's incandescence that the European Banking Authority and the European Medicines Agency - core European regulatory bodies - would no longer be situated in London. There is the prospect of a new Scottish referendum, although whether a successful snap election would neutralise or embolden Nicola Sturgeon and her supporters to push for a new Indyref is not entirely clear.

Wales got an honourable mention. But Northern Ireland didn't get a look in, compounding Westminster's contempt towards its troubled rump across the Irish Sea. It's distressing to see how low a priority Northern Ireland is, given the potential impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland's vulnerable economy and still fragile peace process.

But is there hope on the horizon? Could a landslide victory for Mrs May lay the groundwork for a softer Brexit? Could a prime minister with a general election-backed mandate strengthen her own hand to stand down extreme eurosceptics?

Much will depend on the other variables at play, and with Europe's three largest economies - Britain, France and Germany - going to the polls, Europe feels an ever more vulnerable union.

But one thing is for certain, this lady is not afraid to turn.

Irish Independent

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