Skip to Content

Theresa May Is Quitting Britain’s Top Job. Business Won’t Like What Comes Next.

The British prime minister, Theresa May, is finally falling on her sword. On Friday morning, she announced her imminent resignation as Conservative Party leader on June 7th.

A leadership contest will formally begin on that date, though in reality it has been underway for weeks already. Tory members of Parliament will need to come up with two names that will then be put to the party’s membership. The favorite to become the next party leader, and therefore the next prime minister, is former foreign secretary and enthusiastic Brexiteer Boris Johnson.

There’s no reason to pretend otherwise: May has not been a good leader.

Despite having been anti-Brexit before the fateful referendum, once she became prime minister she adopted the cause with such fervor that she made no real attempt to reach out to the 48% who voted against the U.K.’s divorce from Europe. Instead, she tried to steamroll her parliament with repeated, failed attempts to get a majority of MPs to vote for her negotiated Brexit deal. Rather than trying to heal the divides running through the country, she kept coming up with proposals that pleased no-one.

But May’s failure to win a majority for any proposed outcome was not all down to her lack of flexibility and personal charisma, major problems though those have been. She was always playing a rotten hand, and in a couple months her successor will be holding the same cards.

Nothing’s simple

There was never any way to push through Brexit in a way that leaves Britain better off than before, so MPs who oppose it because they want to protect their constituents will continue to do so. There is certainly no majority of MPs who back the dreaded no-deal Brexit, though that remains the default outcome once the latest deadline runs out on Halloween. But there is also no majority of MPs who back holding a second referendum, or simply cancelling Brexit.

And although the hardcore Brexiteers have long waffled on about getting the EU to agree to better terms if only they talk loudly enough at them, that isn’t going to happen. The EU side has been adamant that they won’t reopen negotiations; they certainly will not do so when dealing with radicals who are only interested in playing to their audience at home, rather than coming up with a practical plan.

So what happens now? If one of those radicals takes over from May, as is likely to happen, then more centrist Tory parliamentarians will probably quit the party. The Conservatives are only clinging on to power with the support of the small Northern Irish DUP party, and the government could easily lose its ability to govern at all (though cynics may argue this has been the case for months.)

That would mean a general election, and none of the big-ticket options would be appealing to the business world.

Degrees of bad

The Conservative Party is likely to choose a hardcore Brexiteer as its new leader because that is the best way for the party to fend off the new threat of the Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, whose two-month-old party is on track to score the most British votes in the European Parliament elections that are currently underway, with most of its support coming from former Tory voters. It remains to be seen whether such a choice would save the Conservative Party from oblivion in a national election, or whether it might have to go into an alliance with the Brexit Party to stay in government.

Whether it’s Prime Minister Johnson entering 10 Downing Street on his own, or with Farage’s support, the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit is likely to go up dramatically—remember, all that is needed for that outcome to become reality is for nobody to agree on an alternative arrangement. That would be catastrophic for industry, and Johnson has put his foot in it before: last June, when asked about worries from the business community, he reportedly replied, “Fuck business.” (Yes, he said that.)

The other plausible general election outcome is that Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister. It’s not clear whether Corbyn, who is often accused of being pro-Brexit despite having professed otherwise during the referendum campaign, could manage to wrangle a better deal out of the EU than May did—but at least he has no enthusiasm for a hard Brexit, unlike Johnson and Farage. There’s another reason a Corbyn victory might not be popular with business: Corbyn comes from Labour’s hard left, and has big plans to renationalize British utilities—plans that are popular with voters, but less so in the markets.

The only possible electoral outcome that could see a tempered Labour victory would involve Corbyn’s party falling just short of a majority and the business-friendly Liberal Democrats agreeing to join a governing coalition with Labour. But although the avowedly anti-Brexit Lib Dems are currently polling well for the European elections, it’s far from certain that they could translate that into serious support in a national election, or that they could come to an agreement with Corbyn.

For the business world and the British economy, there is probably no happy ending in store here, just varying degrees of bad. Perhaps history will judge May’s dismal tenure more kindly in retrospect.