Theresa Maybe: What U.K. Nuclear Decision Tells Us About Brexit


British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Photographer: Carl Court/Getty Images
  • Government departments don’t know what May thinks on policies
  • ‘I actually look at the evidence:’ prime minister says

Lawmakers in Britain’s Conservative Party trying to work out what their new prime minister thinks about Brexit -- or indeed anything -- have a nickname for her: Theresa Maybe.

It’s a moniker the French and Chinese governments will appreciate after they were left hanging for weeks to find out whether the U.K. was going to sign off on the Hinkley Point nuclear plant. Having surprised them by announcing a delay in July, Theresa May gave no clues as to her thinking. As recently as two weeks ago, the French thought her silence meant the deal must be off. This week, she gave it the green light.

Likewise, on the central question facing Britain, the U.K.’s exit from and future relationship with the European Union, she has offered few clues as to her priorities, beyond saying she wants some level of control over immigration. Every question is met with the same answer: “Brexit means Brexit.”

That silence partly reflects the difficulties around what her Brexit Secretary David Davis called “the most complicated negotiation of all time.” But it’s also characteristic of May’s approach to decision-making.

For more on the challenges of May’s approach to Brexit, click here

“This is the way I operate,” May told reporters on her way to China at the start of the month, when she was asked about the Hinkley project. “I don’t just come in and say I just made a decision, I actually look at the evidence, take the advice and then consider that and come to my decision. That’s exactly the process I’m going through.”

Flat-Pack Surprise

The Conservative leadership contest that saw May become prime minister didn’t shed any light on who she is. Under the original timetable, the winner would only just have been announced. But in the chaos that followed Britain’s June 23 referendum decision to quit the EU, May won by watching all the other candidates blow up. She found out she was to be prime minister within an hour of finishing the first of what was supposed to be a series of speeches to introduce herself to the country.

While Tory MPs were grateful at the time to have certainty over their summer vacations, not to mention a leader with some gravitas, many of them have since realized the extent of their ignorance about her plans for the country. In particular, what level of distance does she want from the EU? Does she want access to its single market? What is she prepared to sacrifice to get that?

Speaking privately, one Tory lawmaker compared their situation to the experience of seeing a wardrobe in an Ikea showroom, and then getting home to discover that you own a pile of flat-pack boxes. You know you’re going to have a wardrobe at the end of it, he said, but you don’t know quite what it will look like.

Real Tory

To Tories determined to get as far away from the EU as possible, there are reasons to be suspicious of May. She campaigned to stay in the bloc, and has talked about ensuring that Brexit doesn’t damage Britain’s exporters, which could be read as code for keeping close to the single market.

May needs to keep these lawmakers onside. Her predecessor, David Cameron, learned to his cost that they see leaving the EU as far more important than political loyalty. She gave them early cheer when she appointed three key “Leave” campaigners to top positions: Davis to oversee Brexit, Boris Johnson to Foreign Secretary, and Liam Fox as Trade Secretary.

This pressure could help explain her announcement last week of an expansion of academically selective schools. While the policy in itself has nothing to do with the EU, it was a reversal of one of Cameron’s early totemic positions, one that many Tory MPs hated. Unwilling to give details of her Brexit position, May was instead offering a signal that she was a real Tory, one who shared the party’s instincts.

That announcement offered an insight into just how closely the prime minister holds her cards. Three days earlier, a note about it was photographed under the arm of a minister outside May’s 10 Downing Street office. “I simply don’t know what the PM thinks of this,” Jonathan Slater, the most senior civil servant at the Department for Education, had written.

Cabinet Exception

On another major decision facing the government, whether to expand London’s Heathrow airport, the Department for Transport faces a similar dilemma. Before Cameron’s unexpected departure, officials had tried to work out where every minister and lawmaker stood on the issue. With May, they drew a blank.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who took his Liberal Democrats into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, spent five years in government with May. He describes deciding to avoid negotiating with Tory ministers, instead reaching agreements with Cameron. “The one exception was Theresa May, because Number 10 couldn’t get her to do what they wanted,” Clegg said in an interview. “So every two weeks, I would have a meeting with her and we would work through a lot of issues and then whittle them down.”

Clegg did offer a positive takeaway of his experiences with May.

“By God, it was hard work,” he said. “But when we’d reached an agreement, she’d stick to it.”

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