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The Temptation of Theresa May

LONDON – The three great Theresas in history are all saints. The most recent to be canonized was Mother Teresa, a tireless charity worker and controversial campaigner for the poor; the first was Teresa of Ávila, one of the Catholic Church’s most dynamic and powerful personalities during the sixteenth century. And in the nineteenth century, Thérèse of Lisieux spoke to animals, cultivated gardens, performed good works, and became known as the Little Flower.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is, at times, as philanthropic as Mother Teresa, as ambitious as Teresa of Ávila, and as modest as the Little Flower. But will she be remembered as well as any of them?

Like the Little Flower, May is so discreet that even many members of her own party have doubts about what she actually believes. She has pandered to America’s toxic president, Donald Trump, and courted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is rapidly turning one of the world’s most strategically important countries into a grim Anatolian backwater of intolerance. Both gestures have eclipsed even former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s kowtowing to Chinese President Xi Jinping during Xi’s visit to the United Kingdom in 2015.

But there seems to be something deeper to May. By invoking Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, her government has now pushed Britain’s narrow Brexit referendum decision past the point of no return with minimal controversy, while remaining extraordinarily popular.

Of course, very little has actually happened in the nine months since the referendum took place: no concrete steps have been taken; and staunch Brexit opponents such as Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green and Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Alan Duncan are still members of the government. Investors are apparently banking on the fact that nothing significant will happen for at least another year, because Europe will be in the throes of its own elections in France, Germany, and probably Italy.

Incumbent European governments will not want to risk empowering their populist right-wing rivals by accommodating British bluster. On the other hand, the Dutch populist avatar Geert Wilders recently suffered an electoral defeat, relative to what many expected. And in France, a mainstream candidate such as Emmanuel Macron or François Fillon will likely win the presidency in a run-off against the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen, unless she shrewdly poses as a moderate or a socialist welfare-statist “patriot.”

After that, German voters will either reelect Chancellor Angela Merkel, or give the job to the pro-EU Social Democrat Martin Schulz. And the next Italian leader will surely be anyone but Beppe Grillo, the eccentric Five Star Movement leader.

When the election dust finally settles, a phony war between Britain and the European Union will ensue. In a replay of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s own fights with Europe three decades ago, both sides will huff and puff, threaten to withdraw from the talks, and then reach a last-minute compromise.

Ultimately, the deal that emerges will most likely resemble Norway’s membership in the European Economic Area, but it will be labeled “bespoke” for Britain. In this scenario, the UK’s access to the European market will be similar to what it has today, with somewhat more control over migration from the EU and an end to deference to EU institutions such as the European Court of Justice. In exchange, the UK will forfeit most of its influence in determining how the European single market operates.

By accepting such a compromise, May would certainly fulfill her promise to those who voted for Brexit, and possibly unite the different camps within her own Conservative Party. But a lot could go wrong. If European countries do not lurch to the right, and if Schulz emerges as Germany’s leader – and the EU’s de facto president – the EU will have less tolerance for British demands.

By appealing to Trump and Erdoğan, May’s current strategy seems to be geared toward appeasing right-wing Brexiteers and Euroskeptics. But if she concedes too much to them, she could make it impossible to reach a final agreement with Europe. Either way, Europhobes such as Liam Fox, May’s trade secretary, will denounce any deal as a Cameron-style sellout, and push for a “pure,” off-the-cliff Brexit. This would entail acceding to World Trade Organization rules – or maybe no rules at all – with respect to Europe, which would put Britain at a significant disadvantage.

The fact that May is facing the weakest domestic opposition imaginable may actually compound her difficulties. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is sticking with his old far-left extremism, except on immigration, where he is compromising one of Labour’s most sacred principles to curry favor with the shrinking electorate once claimed by Oswald Mosley and other far-right leaders, and now represented by the UK Independence Party.

Corbyn, like a true Leninist, believes that any strategy is acceptable in the pursuit of power. In a career spanning nearly 35 years, he has always taken the long view. He now seems to think that he could emerge, Trump-like, as an unexpected victor in 2020, especially if Brexit sends the economy into a downward spiral. Barring that scenario, he can at least try to sabotage what he sees as a capitalist free-market plot originating in the EU.

But with even trade union leaders such as Unite’s Len McCluskey now criticizing Corbyn, a more moderate replacement could be found. If former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls or former Foreign Secretary David Miliband takes the reins, Labour might have a real chance at victory in 2020.

Still, May could frustrate Labour by holding an election this fall, which would strengthen her position vis-à-vis her party’s Europhobic fringe and whoever governs Europe next year. For now, she seems to have ruled out calling an early election ahead of the Brexit negotiations. But, equipped with a popular mandate of her own, and with the vision, strength, and courage of her three namesakes, she could secure a deal with Europe that serves both Britain and the cause of global stability.