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May rolls the dice: Britain's new PM takes early risks, starting with Boris

May rolls the dice: Britain's new PM takes early risks, starting with Boris
Published 15 Jul 2016   Follow @DavidWellsCT

After her startling three-day rise from Tory leadership contender to Prime Minister, many are wondering what sort of leader Theresa May will be. We already have some answers.

Firstly, we know her reputation as a tough and 'bloody difficult woman' has been well-earned; sacking the serving Chancellor of the Exchequer and four other cabinet ministers is some statement of intent. While doubts about her lack of an electoral mandate will fester, it is clear this will be her cabinet and her government.

Photo: Getty Images/Carl Court

In her (brief) leadership campaign, May had also been clear that 'Brexit means Brexit' – she would not retreat from the result of the EU referendum. The new cabinet line-up suggests she means what she says.

David Davis and Dr Liam Fox, prominent Leave campaigners and long-time Eurosceptics, head up the two new departments dealing with Brexit negotiations. Some have speculated that May — a reluctant 'remainer' who kept a low profile throughout the EU referendum — wants to pursue a 'hard Brexit' solution. But it could also be that May is calling the Leave campaign's bluff. Both Davis and Fox insist the UK can secure a favourable EU exit while securing new trade deals with the UK's trading partners (including Australia); now it is their job to make it happen.

This makes a lot of sense from a party perspective. The Europe question has dogged every Conservative leader since John Major. And May needs to unify a Conservative Party split down the middle by the referendum campaign. With the Europe question 'settled', a fractured and impotent opposition, and UKIP leaderless, now is the perfect time to bring leading Eurosceptics inside the tent.

May's supporters project an image of her as unflappable and calm at a time of political, social and economic uncertainty; a safe pair of hands. Yet her cabinet appointments are not without risk. [fold]

May's government has a working majority of just 16, more than enough while Labour remains so hopelessly divided. But in sacking several high-profile cabinet ministers in one stroke, she is potentially storing up resentment and ill-will on her backbenches, and in doing so increasing the likelihood that she might be forced to seek an electoral mandate at a time not of her choosing.

But most obviously when it comes to risks, there is the blond-haired elephant in the room: Boris Johnson as foreign secretary.

The global reaction has been swift, disbelieving and almost resoundingly negative. But behind the countless jokes and memes, Johnson's appointment provides further ammunition for the view outlined by Shashank Joshi earlier this week: the UK's foreign policy latitude will not just be restricted by Brexit but also by May's ambitious domestic agenda. May has also prioritised party unity, and her own position, ahead of the UK's place in the world.

Boris Johnson addressing the Lowy Institute in 2013. Photo: Sydney Heads/Peter Morris

As with Davis and Fox, May is calling Boris' bluff. But she has given him a weakened hand. Johnson will oversee a Foreign and Commonwealth Office stripped of responsibility for relations with the EU and negotiating international trade agreements. Despite the fall-out from the EU referendum, Boris remains a hugely popular (albeit divisive) figure in the UK. Better for May to have him in a cabinet role with comparatively minimal domestic impact than biding his time on the backbenches. Given enough rope in this diplomatic portfolio, Boris might even hang his future leadership chances.

How great a risk Boris' appointment poses is unclear, even if it is not hard to find evidence of his foreign policy views. What is more difficult to assess is how much credence to place on these views. Johnson infamously prepared articles arguing for Remain and Brexit before announcing his position. He remains at heart a journalist, as interested in a good story as policy consistency. He will soon discover that as Foreign Secretary, the UK's allies and foes expect greater coherence and consistency.

If his most recent views on both Assad and Putin are taken at face value however, they represent a significant shift in UK policy with implications for the Middle East and beyond. And given the importance of Turkey in both the fight against ISIS and Europe's response to the migration crisis, Johnson may regret his winning contribution to a President Erdogan offensive poem competition earlier this year. It is unlikely to be the last time he offends a world leader.

Presumably May has decided that unleashing Boris on the world stage is a risk worth taking for a new PM with many supporters but few friends in the Conservative Party. What the opening days of the May Government suggest is that the PM's focus will be domestic and regional, not global, and that she is prepared to risk losing some latitude abroad if it gives her greater room to manoeuvre at home.

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