THERESA MAY, who has become Britain’s next prime minister by a process of elimination, may nevertheless be the best available choice. Her rivals in the Conservative Party, having persuaded voters to choose to exit the European Union with irresponsible rhetoric and unfulfillable promises, self-destructed one by one. That left Ms. May, a veteran cabinet minister and Euroskeptic who nevertheless favored the “remain” side, the last candidate standing. When she takes office Wednesday, she will inherit a mess of profound proportions: There is no plan for carrying out the mandated E.U. withdrawal and probably no way to avoid painful economic and geopolitical consequences. Fortunately, Ms. May, like Britain’s only other female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, has a reputation for pragmatism and toughness; she will need loads of both.
Foremost among the new government’s problems will be facing the choice between seeking a close association with the E.U., including full access to its market, and curbing the outward payments to Brussels and inward flow of E.U. immigrants, as promised by the Brexit camp. Failure to obtain the former could be devastating to Britain’s service- and finance-heavy economy, but surrender on the latter would enrage many voters. Ms. May seemingly could incline in either direction: She has recently talked up the benefits of E.U. market access but has a long record as a hard-liner on immigration. Judging from what E.U. leaders have been saying since the referendum, she will not be able to have it both ways.
Prudently, Ms. May has indicated she will move slowly, waiting until early next year to formally trigger the withdrawal process. While that may irritate Brussels, it will give the new prime minister time to construct a plan, and perhaps to seek a mandate in a new general election. In the meantime, Ms. May is signaling that she will seek to build her own political base with a domestic economic program that abandons the fiscal austerity of departing prime minister David Cameron and tilts distinctly leftward.
Sounding like more than one of the U.S. presidential candidates, Ms. May delivered a speech Monday under the slogan “A country that works for everyone, not just for the privileged few.” She endorsed measures to raise working-class incomes and check executive pay and corporate takeovers. She even called for “a proper industrial strategy,” a nostrum usually associated with the opposition Labour Party. That may make political sense at a time when Labour has veered toward the extreme left and is embroiled in its own internal power struggle.
Ms. May, however, also appears to appreciate that the Brexit vote was driven by a backlash against the costs of globalization, including growing inequality. As she put it, the referendum was not just a vote against the E.U. but also “a vote for serious change.” The exit from the union, which could take years to pull off, is not likely to answer those demands. While she negotiates with Brussels, Ms. May would be wise to pursue more workable responses.
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