The Britain Prime Minister David Cameron this week ended his somber resignation announcement by humming a happy little tune to himself, looking very much like a character in a Monty Python sketch.
He is being replaced by Theresa May, who by contrast resembles a suspect in an Agatha Christie novel. The daughter of a vicar, she was raised in an Oxfordshire village and is known for eccentric footwear — the sort of detail that would help Christie’s Miss Marple solve a murder mystery.
May kept relatively quiet during the referendum on leaving the European Union, but this week she made clear how she felt by announcing: “Brexit means Brexit.” She has been described as someone with a “ruthless streak who gets on with the job.” And, setting the tone for her term, she let people know she is “a bloody difficult woman, and the next man to find that out will be Jean-Claude Juncker,” the European Commission president.
This lion of a woman is entering Downing Street with a roar, and it would seem this makes the United Kingdom’s departure from the European pride inevitable. But May will still require significant luck far more than she will sharp claws.
Her enemy is time. Few divorces are fast, and leaving a political union with 27 different partners will be painfully slow. May and her government do not yet even have a plan for when and how to begin the separation talks. There is no strategy for dealing with the EU, and even if there were, they have almost no qualified negotiators. In fact, the British government is recruiting bureaucrats from Washington, Canberra, and Ottawa, all places with far more experience in coping with the complicated and arcane minutiae of trade deals. And commerce is only one asset to be divided in this divorce. It is not surprising that on Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told Parliament Brexit could take six years to complete.
Events have demonstrated three weeks is a very long time in British politics; six years will be an epoch. The list of things that could go wrong for May over that period is very long.
Public opinion, for example, is already shifting. The morning after the referendum, the Leave campaign’s many promises began to unravel. Economic assurances fell apart as the British pound fell through the floor. And it was revealed it would even be impossible to cut immigration if the United Kingdom wanted access to the European market. As a result, polls show so many voters now regret their choice that the Stay campaign would win. Illustrating this, all it took was a Facebook post by a college student to gather more than 30,000 pro-EU protesters onto the streets of London this weekend.
Consider, also, demographics. The overwhelming majority of youth opposed Brexit, and more of them join the voting lists every day, supplanting elderly voters who were staunchly anti-EU. The Brexit base is literally dying off, and many will be gone in six years, replaced by younger, more cosmopolitan voters. If these shifts continue, it would take a brave prime minister to continue forward against the public’s wishes.
And even if May were that aggressive, the House of Commons might not be. Constitutional experts believe the prime minister would require an act of Parliament to even begin negotiations with the EU. Some members of Parliament are pointing out the referendum was only “advisory,” and legislators should stop Brexit in its tracks now. While it’s true that politicians are instinctively leery of overturning the will of the electorate, they care more about what the public thinks today — and less about what it might have been thinking six weeks ago. Six years ago is so far in the past it may as well be a different world.
What is more, many of these Parliament members, and possibly this government, will be gone by then. An election is fixed for four years hence, and an early one could come at any time for many reasons, such as the prime minister herself wanting to legitimize her mandate or a nonconfidence vote by Parliament. A general election would be a de facto second referendum. As such, the Liberal Democrats are already promising to run on a pro-EU mandate; the Labor Party is in the process of pushing out its leader Jeremy Corbyn for not being pro-EU enough (among other crimes); and the Tory back bench is still divided on the issue. Those in charge now may not remain.
Europe itself could derail the divorce. While current leaders in Germany and France respect the British decision and would like a speedy separation, there will be elections in both countries next year, as well as in the Netherlands and probably Italy. New governments may choose not to ratify a deal (and Brexit requires every European country to do so). More likely, Europe could offer the United Kingdom an “open marriage,” a new deal that limits immigration, for example. If this happened, May would be obligated to get a new mandate from the public.
May must also pull the Scottish thistle out of her paw. The Scots are adamantly in favor of remaining in the European Union and are increasingly less passionate about staying in the United Kingdom. While it seems constitutionally unlikely that they could veto Brexit, they could tip the entire chessboard over by voting to dissolve the United Kingdom itself.
May’s considerable leonine qualities will not be enough to overcome all of these possible obstacles. Even with a pro-Brexit referendum and (soon) a new Cabinet of similarly minded colleagues, she may end her time as prime minister far more meekly than she is beginning it.
Scott Gilmore is a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, the founder of the nonprofit Building Market, and a former Canadian diplomat.