2016 has proven to be one of the most politically tumultuous years in recent memory, with a history-making referendum, a change of government, leadership elections in several of the opposition parties and Ed Balls dazzling the nation on live Saturday night TV. As such, last Friday should have been Theresa May’s 40th day as prime minster but, thanks to the unexpected termination of the Conservative leadership contest in July, saw her celebrate her 100th day in office.
Responding to the result of the EU referendum
Fittingly, Theresa May’s first 100 days have been dominated by the very reason her predecessor stood down: the result of the EU referendum. May inherited a country divided, a party at odds with itself and a future of unknowns. But whilst Labour and UKIP took the opportunity to publicly turn in on themselves, May ruthlessly began forming a new government that tried to speak to both sides of the European divide. By placing her allies in the domestic departments, where reforms would be top of the agenda, the departments most affected by Brexit (FCO, DExEU, Defra) were left firmly in the hands of the prominent ‘leavers’. It remains to be seen whether this move was more tactical than strategic on May’s behalf and how it will play out over the next two years.
In terms of Brexit’s content, very little has been forthcoming from No 10. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ served May well up until the Conservative Party conference in September, when a bit more meat was added to the Brexit skeleton. The announcement of the ‘great repeal bill’ was a welcome step to ensuring that current European standards, which the public benefit from, will remain for the time being. The real fight will be ensuring that the government does not weaken them in the long term.
The UK as a climate leader
Back at home, things seem to be more positive. May’s instant approval of the fifth carbon budget and the announcement to ratify the Paris agreement by the end of the year shows recognition of climate change for the pressing issue that it is, and a desire for the UK to remain as a climate world leader. The prime minister is yet to explicitly make a public statement on climate change and the future of the country’s low carbon economy, but her initial actions have been optimistic.
The future of food and farming
On the natural environment, things are a little less clear. Putting leadership contender, Andrea Leadsom, at the helm of Defra was a surprise to some, but showed that May recognised the amount of upheaval the department would face by leaving Europe. Leadsom’s ambitions for the natural environment have been positive however, although the billions of pounds a year that currently subsidise our farming industry are guaranteed until 2020, there has been no indication about what will happen after this. The recent State of Nature report confirmed that agricultural practices are the largest contributor to negative changes in the natural environment. May has an opportunity to create a thriving food and farming system, that works alongside the natural environment and rewards those farmers who provide the most public benefit, but so far there has only been silence on the issue.
It is likely that the next 100 May days will be much like the last 100. In the run-up to triggering Article 50, the main concern will be developing the UK’s position for upcoming negotiations; managing pressures at home, as well as those from the other 27 member states. However, between now and then, the prime minister has many opportunities to showcase her vision for what the UK outside of the EU could be. The autumn statement, the upcoming carbon plan and the developing industrial strategy are all chances for May to set out strong ambitions on low carbon investment, in areas where the UK can be a global leader. Likewise, the 25 year plan for the environment could be an opportunity to establish a strong policy framework for the UK countryside in the long run.
Keeping up such high levels of ambition will not be easy. But for the UK to truly prosper while the political landscape is still changing at such a rapid rate, the prime minister must keep her eyes on a target that goes beyond the next 100 days.