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Who Will Speak For Britain?

13/06/2017 12:39

When acting Labour leader Arthur Greenwood stepped up to the despatch box he was met with calls from across the Chamber, "Arthur, speak for England!" On 2nd September, 1939 the country was on the eve of war. The nation was heavily divided. The Government faced the insurmountable task of preparing and readying the country for another world conflict. That night in the House of Commons the country desperately needed a unifying call. Instead Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of the day, delivered a speech which had badly misjudged the public mood.

Fast forward to June 2017 and Britain is now on the eve of the most complicated negotiations in modern history, negotiations which will have huge ramifications for the UK and Europe once more. Of course diplomacy is not as dramatic as war, but the talks hold the sovereignty and economic prosperity of the UK and the European Union in the balance. Once again we have a prime minister who has greatly misread the public sentiment.

When Theresa May called a snap election, she did so on the basis that she was facing a divided opposition with an unpopular leader and all opinion polls pointing to the Government winning by a landslide. Six weeks later and Britain has a hung parliament once again. The Prime Minister's gamble, far from producing a "strong and stable" result, now sees her set to lead the first minority Government since 1977. A minority government propped up by the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, who will no doubt demand their pound of flesh.

The Prime Minister's reputation now lies in tatters at home and abroad. While her own Cabinet colleagues and MPs conspire to remover her, the opposition re-energised and reunited seeks to push its advantage. A second election seems inevitable.

Theresa May's attempt to make the election another referendum on Brexit was overshadowed, first by a row surrounding Conservative plans to reform social care and then by the tragic terrorist attacks in Manchester and London. Foreign policy was once again side-lined in favour of domestic political issues.

The forced resignations of May's chiefs of staff reflect the growing discontent in the Government's own ranks against the centralisation of political and policy decision making in No.10. Their removal will now force the Prime Minister to re-consider her style of government, particularly her approach to foreign policymaking.

Many believe that May's weakened position and reliance on the DUP will force her to abandon any desire for a hard Brexit and require the Government to gain consensus from opposition parties and the regional governments on its Brexit negotiating aims. However that is yet to be seen.

If these are the last days of Theresa May's premiership it is worth noting that she never lacked opportunities as premier to re-forge British foreign policy; instead she lacked the desire. Under her tenure the US has taken an unprecedented step back from the world stage, abdicating responsibility and leaving a vacuum that ultimately will need to be filled.

The looming start of the Brexit negotiations leaves no time for a Tory leadership contest or for a fresh election. These unique set circumstances while keeping her in office, will not buy her much more time. Theresa May's tone deaf speech on the steps of Downing Street after a staggering failure to secure a parliamentary majority leaves in doubt more than ever the question, 'who will speak for Britain?'

Sam Goodman is author of The Imperial Premiership: The role of the modern Prime Minister in foreign policy making, 1964-2015

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