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Theresa May: The foreign policy leanings of Britain's new PM

Theresa May: The foreign policy leanings of Britain's new PM
Published 13 Jul 2016 

On Wednesday afternoon, Theresa May will become British prime minister after every one of her opponents were stabbed in the back, fell of self-inflicted wounds, or simply faded away in the glare of her overwhelming support from MPs. The process — less than three weeks from referendum to coronation — brings to mind William Hague’s famous remark of the Tory party: 'an absolute monarchy, moderated by regicide'. But for a woman whose career in parliament stretches back almost two decades, she presents a paradox. 'It is some feat', noted the FT’s Janan Ganesh, 'to say things about migrants that make nativist Tories feel queasy'. Yet she came to prominence in 2002 by demanding the party come to terms with its 'nasty' epithet, a decade later was the 'unsung hero' in the introduction of gay marriage, and has championed police reform.

 Are her foreign policy views any clearer? Yes, and no. Her long tenure as home secretary — in three weeks it would have been the longest in British history — offers some clues on security policy. May’s Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB), currently being scrutinised in the House of Lords, includes contentious provisions on bulk data collection and encryption, while last year she made an ill-advised effort to ban extremism without being able to define it.

Tory grandee Kenneth Clark, who was caught on microphone ridiculing all the Tory candidates, suggested May 'doesn't know much about foreign affairs'. But this is not wholly true. While none of her three predecessors — David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair — carried much foreign policy knowledge on their entry to Downing Street, May’s six years of counter-terrorism experience, including membership of the National Security Council (NSC), are important, not least because they cover a period of unprecedented inward and outward foreign fighter flows, and an intensified threat of terrorist attacks. Her familiarity with the intelligence services, with international counter-terrorist cooperation, and with the diplomatic aspects of asylum and immigration policy give her a sound, if geographically narrow, basis for foreign policy leadership.

May was a quiet supporter of remaining in the European Union, but her tough approach to immigration, her recent refusal to guarantee the status of EU citizens in Europe, and her pledge to 'to regain more control of the numbers of people who come here from Europe' bode ill for a Norway-type (European Economic Area, or EEA) arrangement with the EU. But this was likely to be true for any of the plausible leadership candidates. More to the point, May’s cabinet will probably include a much larger proportion of Remainers than would have been the case for any of her rivals. Some British newspapers have suggested chancellor George Osborne could become foreign secretary. While this would infuriate many Brexiteers, it would reinforce the sense of continuity with the last six years. It was clear from May’s own pro-Remain speech in April that she had a granular appreciation of the ways in which British security benefited from cooperation with the EU; she is well-placed to safeguard as much of this as is possible in the tumultuous years ahead. [fold]

More broadly, May’s foreign policy voting record is that of a thoroughly mainstream figure, wholly comfortable with the use of military force and the logic of nuclear deterrence. She voted favourably on every decision to go to war from Iraq in 2003 to Syria in 2015. She has consistently voted to renew British nuclear weapons, and during her campaign pledged to support continuous deterrent patrols, suggested that unilateral disarmament was 'sheer madness', and promised an early vote on the issue. She also highlighted the 'the renewed belligerence of Russia in recent years', North Korea’s nuclear capability, and the importance of NATO. Her speech to the party conference last October attacked Syrian 'war crimes on an industrial scale', and singled out Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah for criticism. In 2013, May hewed closely to US policy when she warned British airlines that Edward Snowden would be denied entry as 'detrimental to the public good', and last year reiterated that his leaks 'did cause damage'. Former Israeli ambassador to Britain Daniel Taub describes her as 'a long-standing friend of Israel and the Jewish community'. And in 2015, she agreed to a security pact — likely involving intelligence cooperation — with Saudi Arabia.

What can we infer from all this? Campaign speeches are heavily scripted and vetted, while British policy towards Israel and Saudi Arabia during her tenure in the Home Office was guided by Downing Street. Yet these remarks and positions can be taken as an indication of her temperament and instinct. May hews firmly to the establishment foreign policy consensus. This would be unremarkable, were it not for the fact that the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee and Defence Committee are chaired by Tory MPs with less conventional views on issues like Russia and Syria (Crispin Blunt and Julian Lewis respectively).

Moreover, May shows no sign of particular or deep interest in issues such as Iran, the broader Middle East, Russia or Asia-Pacific beyond their impact on counter-terrorism and immigration. This has both advantages and drawbacks. She does not enter office with obvious prejudices — for example, prone to exalt or to vilify Britain’s relationship with the Gulf states — or elaborate pet theories about world affairs. Yet her appointees for foreign secretary, defence secretary, and ‘Brexit minister’ will all be important, especially if one of the first two has strong and radical views in this area. I would be extremely surprised to see any major ruptures in areas where policy has its own momentum, as on Russia sanctions or Syria diplomacy, although areas involving ministerial attention, such as engagement with the Persian Gulf, may well suffer. An Osborne foreign secretaryship is perhaps the wildcard, given his long commitment to deepening the UK-China relationship.

The truth is that British foreign policy latitude after Brexit is severely restricted, as I noted on The Interpreter just before the referendum. The foreign office and Downing Street will be preoccupied, for two years at least, with negotiations with Brussels, while the UK’s reduced clout in the EU will make it a less valuable interlocutor to foreign partners. Even more importantly, Theresa May has set out a strikingly left-wing, domestically-focused, one-nation Tory agenda that will not come cheap. Unless overseas aid is cut — and this remains possible — it is hard to see her finding the funds for significant investment in defence or diplomacy.

Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

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