Focus is on Brexit

Focus is on Brexit

THE MAY ERA BEGINS IN UK : India will be hoping that May will build on Cameron's legacy but her priorities will be to settle the debate on UK's role i

A British politics has entered uncharted territory and is changing at an unprecedented pace. All politics essentially is about who governs us and how and the British public has seized that power back with a vehemence few expected from it. British polity is now struggling to respond to this unique challenge.

There has been turmoil since the Brexit vote and its aftermath when Prime Minister David Cameron decided to call it quits after being defeated in the EU referendum which he had called hoping to win and silence Tory Euro-sceptics, perhaps forever. Now he is the one to go after handing over power to Theresa May, his home secretary.

Cameron is right in this graceful acknowledgment of his failure. He had asked Britons to vote Remain but was defeated by 52% to 48% despite London, Scotland and Northern Ireland backing staying in. The Tories saw a lot tumult as former London mayor Boris Johnson, who was the leader of the Leave-EU camp and was hoping to be the front-runner to succeed Cameron, had to give up on running because of lack of support from his close associates. In the end, May, the front runner, was the last woman standing to take over leading the party and to therefore becoming prime minister.

On the other side, the opposition Labour party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn, is also coming under attack from all sides with his critics accusing him of being half-hearted in calling for Labour voters to unite behind Remain. It were largely the Labour voters who were supposed to be the backbone of the Remain campaign but they, it seems, have stopped listening to the Labour Party.

Senior Labour Party figures are suggesting that his position is now untenable with Labour members of parliament passing a no-confidence motion against him by a solid 172-40. Yet Corbyn remains defiant arguing that he was the democratically elected leader of the party and was elected by 60% of Labour members and supporters. And so he is being challenged for the leadership of the party less than a year into his term.

For many in Britain, Theresa May appears to provide a stolid leadership at a time of great turbulence. She was expecting a long leadership context at least till September but now she will barely have time to unpack her bags before she will have to make important decisions.

Though some are still expecting a reversal of Brexit, May has been clear that “Brexit means Brexit,” and has vowed to make it work. She has floated the idea of a new government department to take day-to-day charge of negotiating the UK's exit from the EU – to be headed by someone who campaigned to leave in the referendum. She was herself on the side of ‘Remain’, so she will have to first unify the Tories.

As other EU leaders seem reluctant to allow Britain to dictate the terms and pace of the country's exit, May will be under pressure to trigger Article 50 as soon as possible even though she is not in favour of triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would formally take Britain out of the EU after up to two years of negotiations, before the end of 2016.

She will also have to engage with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who wants to ensure that Scotland – which overwhelmingly voted to remain in the European Union – is properly represented in the process of leaving and to make the case for retaining important links such as access to the single market.

India-UK ties

There will be both opportunities and challenges for India as the new European order gets conceived. But in the short term, Cameron’s departure will be a significant loss for Indo-UK ties. He has championed Indian interests like few British prime ministers did in recent years. India and Britain had forged a ‘strategic partnership’ during the former prime minister Tony Blair’s visit to India in 2005 but it remained a partnership only in name.

The Conservatives were keen on imparting it a new momentum. The UK is the largest European investor in India and India is the second largest investor in the UK. Indian students are the second largest group in Britain. There are significant historical, linguistic and cultural ties that remain untapped. But the Labour government’s legacy on India was very complex and Cameron’s government needed great diplomatic finesse to manage the challenges.

Cameron’s government has made a serious effort to jettison the traditional British approach towards the sub-continent in so far as it has decided to deal with India as a rising power, not merely as a South Asian entity that needs to be seen through the prism of Pakistan. Cameron himself made all the right noises when it came to India. He warned Pakistan against promoting any “export of terror,” whether to India or elsewhere, and said it must not be allowed to “look both ways.”

He proposed a close security partnership with India and underlined that Britain like India was determined that groups like the Taliban, the Haqqani network or Lakshar-e-Taiba should not be allowed to launch attacks on Indian and British citizens in India or in Britain. More significantly, the he also rejected any role for his country in the India-Pakistan dispute. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s successful trip to the UK last year was a reflection of the transformation in Indo-UK ties under Cameron.

As Britain undergoes a leadership tra-nsition, India will be hoping that Theresa May will build on the legacy of Cameron even as her priorities will clearly be to settle the debate on UK’s role in Europe.

(The writer is Professor of International Relations, King’s College London)
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