A grandmaster has entered the Brexit game. Theresa May’s first set of moves as PM have confounded opponents and onlookers alike. Her cabinet appointments have raised eyebrows with Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary also raising many a laugh. She has indicated a decisive break from the failed pro-elite austerity strategy of Cameron-Osborne. And she has swiftly moved to shore up the union by meeting with Nicola Sturgeon and acknowledging that the UK is more than just England. Importantly, triggering Article 50 to leave the EU will only be done once there is a “UK approach”. This also provides a legitimate reason to prolong the triggering, which is UK’s best strategy in Brexit negotiations. May’s strategy is masterful to watch in an era of Camerons and Goves where bland smiles and glib words hide an intellectual deficit of epic proportions and shameless short term opportunism trumps long-term sense.
The choice of appointing Brexiteers, David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson, achieves three crucial objectives. First, it cements May’s position by assuaging the Eurosceptic right flank of the Tory party and heading off potential future challengers. It allows her time and space to plan Brexit rather than rush headlong into it. Second, it places the Brexit brigade on the spot to deliver on the dream they promised. If they succeed, she wins by being the PM who calmly steered the nation away from the EU whirlpool. If they fail, she wins again by exposing the mendacity of their pre-Brexit claims and changing course (another reason why deferring invocation of Article 50 is sound strategy). Third, it channels their right-wing energies outwards towards achieving the national interest by competing with other nations. Also, given their fierce ambition (all three having coveted the Tory leadership at various points), they are likely to put in an extra effort to succeed in their brief to distinguish themselves. Moreover, having the right-wingers in international portfolios allows May to pursue a softer domestic economic policy and improve social cohesion.
In addition, May has placed the people quite appropriately. The important international trade and Brexit portfolios where a serious approach and detail orientation are critical have been given to David Davis and Liam Fox. The foreign secretary’s brief requires a candidate able to charm, persuade foreign leaders and raise Britain’s profile in the world. It also requires an ability to be flexible with the truth. Grasp of detail is irrelevant (it is the civil service which takes care of detail). Ergo Boris. He has demonstrated all these capabilities as Mayor of London and successful Brexiteer. Moreover, the clownish persona disarms opponents to the steely machinations of a first rate political brain as evidenced by his rise to the top echelons of the party. It also takes the edge off the insults and nonsense he spouts on occasion as it is usually ascribed to buffoonery. Any other “serious” politician would have been sunk had they even said half of these things. He is exactly the foreign secretary needed to put one over the foreigner. While a “serious” candidate might make us feel good, international relations require a mastery of realpolitik which Boris Johnson has demonstrated. Would you rather have a straight shooter who comes back waving a document signed by an autocrat believing in the eternal friendship being proclaimed?
The other well thought Theresa May move which has surprised is to break from the Osbornian cult of austerity and send its architect packing. Given current conventional wisdom, even considering a fiscal expansion and not falling back on opening the monetary spigot to deal with a crisis is quite revolutionary (notably the Bank of England did not reduce interest rates last Thursday as was widely expected). Austerity along with easy monetary policy has contributed to increasing wealth inequality and created a perception of the system not working for the common person. It has given rise to populists across UK and other countries and was probably a decisive factor in the Brexit vote. In addition to breaking from current economic dogma, May has done well to appoint Philip Hammond. Deficit spending, when the nation has cut itself away from the EU, requires market credibility to prevent soaring Gilt yields. The new Chancellor, being an established fiscal hawk provides it.
Alongside positioning her pieces, May has sharpened offense and strengthened defence. She has kept UK on the front foot by ignoring the European voices clamouring for a swift invocation of Article 50. It pushes significant Brexit uncertainty onto a crisis-ridden EU and constricts its ability to formulate an effective response (evidence the considerable gnashing of teeth from various European capitals). It may make it easier to obtain pre-negotiation concessions. The ambiguity also provides hope to markets stopping them from freaking out, thus containing the short-term economic fallout. Delaying Article 50 triggering also buys time to set a clear strategy and implement it while the country continues to benefit from the single market. In addition, May’s meeting with Nicola Sturgeon to reassure that Scots that they would have a say in Brexit reduces the threat to UK disintegration.
It is early days yet and much can change, however Theresa May seems to have set her eyes on winning the Brexit game. She has rapidly reconfigured the board to put UK at an advantage. She has astutely positioned people, forced EU on the back foot on Article 50 and mitigated potential vulnerabilities by acting to shore up the Union. As the game unfolds, Jean-Claude Juncker and team may find themselves in the position of an amateur playing Judith Polgar.