The loss of her parliamentary majority has fundamentally changed Theresa May’s mission as Prime Minister. For the next two years, May will try to fight tooth and nail to fulfil Vote Leave's promise to take back control. Whether or not she makes it beyond this year’s party conference is a different matter, but May is determined to carry on.
May’s major Bills in her first (and almost certainly her last) Queen’s Speech are all related to Brexit. This was always going to be the case given the need to pass the Bills before March 2019 when Britain formally exits the EU. May is sticking by her Lancaster House speech. British sovereignty will return over trade, immigration, laws, territorial waters, agriculture, nuclear safeguards, and international sanctions. This is all in line with the government’s plan to leave the customs union and the single market.
Some tweaks have been made to May’s Brexit plan. The government’s tone on Brexit has softened as the Queen’s Speech made a commitment to “secure the best possible deal as the country leaves the European Union” and “build the widest possible consensus on the country’s future outside the European Union.” Despite the toned down rhetoric, Brexiteers will loudly support May for fear of a leadership contest leading to a new “soft Brexit” Conservative leader or triggering an election in which Labour wins a majority.
This will be a two-year long legislative slugfest which exposes divisions across the two main parties over Brexit. Although both the Conservatives and Labour pledged to leave the single market and customs union in their manifestos, there will be resistance from the backbench MPs opposed to what they call a “hard Brexit”, including the Tory awkward squad led by Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, and at least 34 Labour MPs. The House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament also have the power to derail the Brexit Bills.
As a lifelong Eurosceptic, how far will Jeremy Corbyn go in collaborating with the Conservatives to implement Brexit? Since the election campaign ended, Corbyn and the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, have repeated their manifesto pledge to honour the Brexit result. Attempting to thwart Brexit, by for example blocking the Repeal Bill, could risk the wrath of their pro-Brexit working-class supporters who left UKIP for Labour two weeks ago.
Domestic policy in the Queen's Speech was an entirely different affair. For the past year, May has been crafting her analysis of how the failures of the political class led to the Brexit result and what can be done to correct these failings. The manifesto which addressed these problems and formed the basis of May’s mandate for change has now been shredded. With the loss of a majority, and the bandwidth being consumed by Brexit, this is unavoidable. Policies such as grammar schools, the so-called “dementia tax”, and cuts to pensioner benefits will not see the light of day.
But while the details of Mayism have been changed, the general direction of travel has not. Measures were announced to put an industrial startegy into action through technical education reform and infrastructure investment, inject fairness into markets such as energy and housing, tackle social problems related to domestic violence and mental health, and respond to the challenges of extremism and terrorism. These are all worthy, if unambitious, proposals to help improve the country and keep the flame of Mayism alive during and beyond the Brexit process.
Conservatism is at a crossroads. Instead of witnessing the beginning of a Tory renaissance under a Mayite revolution, Conservatives are questioning whether or not their party even has a future. The Spectator has declared this moment as “The dying of the right”. It is an existential crisis which May is not capable of resolving in light of her failed election gamble. But May could, perhaps successfully, steady the party through the Brexit process and be remembered as an honourable, albeit flawed, Prime Minister.