A glimpse inside the prime ministerial residence shows a glum-looking premier moodily tossing shirts and socks into a suitcase as he contemplates a lengthy schedule of far-flung stops on a foreign tour of barely heard-of nations. “Why are you making me go to all these places?” he asks his adviser, pleadingly.
“Because whenever you’re out of the country, your popularity rises,” comes the reply.
International gatherings like the G20 would normally appeal to prime ministers eager to escape trouble at home and strut on the world stage in a statesmanlike manner.
By contrast, Theresa May probably couldn’t wait for the screech of plane tyres on tarmac as she touched down back in the UK after a bruising introduction to global summitry. Over the summer, she has perfected her leadership style and approach to Brexit, slowing the process down and refusing to provide any detail until it has been thoroughly chewed over.
That failed to impress world leaders. In China, she was told that, like a gym membership whose introductory offers have expired, the so-called “Special Relationship” no longer comes with queue jumping privileges, and the UK will have to wait until the United States concludes trade deals with the EU and Pacific nations before getting its own agreement.
Japan, with typical and methodical precision, released a damning analysis of the damage that Brexit would to do foreign investment and manufacturing, and effectively threatened to shut down much of what remains of car manufacturing in the UK. And she faced an awkward encounter with Chinese president Xi Jinping for insisting on a delay to the Hinkley Point nuclear deal.
Given all the dire warnings before the referendum, questions are being asked about why the sky has yet to fall in. In reality, nothing concrete has changed yet – so far, Brexit is all in the mind. For global leaders gathered in China, their changed perceptions are enough to see the UK diminished as player on the world stage. So EU leaders meet US counterparts without the UK present, and the only truly enthusiastic partner for British officials to talk to was Australia. This is the UK’s new global status, and the change took place with the speed of a Breaking News flash on the morning of 24 June.
Back home, however, Ms May’s honeymoon shows no sign of coming to an end, and her slow and steady approach suits a climate in which the public are holding on to the belief that Brexit will have no negative consequences.
She faces almost no opposition from a Labour Party more concerned by its enemies within. Her decision to rule out an early election, not just next year but any year until 2020, passed without the agonies of Gordon Brown in 2007 because frankly, it makes little difference: she could either trounce Labour now, or face a divided and damaged party in future – potentially with Jeremy Corbyn still at the helm of at least part of it.
For the time being, managing her own party requires as little effort as facing Labour. The collapse in leadership of the Tories’ Brexit wing following David Cameron’s resignation has denied them a standard-bearer to rally around. Following the announcement that Mrs May won’t be taking forward the points-based immigration system championed by Boris Johnson during the referendum, some commentators braced for an eruption from the right.
It never came. None of the Leave campaign leaders are willing stand up for their own pledges. The Prime Minister is free to define Brexit – or not define it – how she pleases.
She is also outmanoeuvring Nicola Sturgeon on a second independence referendum. When Mrs May came to power, it seemed that keeping Scotland in the UK was her trickiest task. On the steps of Downing Street, she made preserving the union her top priority, and promptly jetted off to Edinburgh to pay her respects at Bute House. The Prime Minister bent over backwards to accommodate Scotland, pledging to listen to any suggestions about the UK’s future relationship with the EU. When she went so far as saying she would not trigger Article 50 until all devolved nations were happy, it initially sounded as if she was giving the Scottish Government a veto over triggering Brexit.
Over a the course of the summer, she has quietly withdrawn all those promises. Downing Street soon let it be known there would be no veto on Article 50 after all. There would also, it later emerged, be no special deal for Scotland – the whole of the UK will be leaving the EU on the same terms. Now the UK government says it will be the one to decide those terms. That message was delivered last week by press release from a Cabinet away day at Chequers, not by the Bute House fireplace.
Ms Sturgeon’s reaction to the UK government’s position of strength has been telling. Yesterday she shifted emphasis, appearing to draw her red line on membership of the European common market rather than EU membership itself and offering to work in “coalition” with pro-Remain politicians, including those in Mrs May’s cabinet, to fight for a “soft Brexit” as the least-worst option.
But in appointing David Davis as her Brexit secretary, the Prime Minister was making it clear she wasn’t that concerned about the single market, and using a second referendum as leverage in Brexit negotiations is difficult for an SNP leader to make appear credible. Independence is the party’s reason for being – it is always the best option.
Meanwhile, the SNP is heading into a party conference with the largest, most active parliamentary party and membership ever, fired up by promises of a second referendum to protect Scotland’s EU status. Having walked her soldiers up the hill in the days following the Brexit vote, Ms Sturgeon now has got to tell them not to open fire, for months if not years, because the numbers are clear – if an independence referendum were called today, the Nationalists would lose. The First Minister desperately needs to draw the process out, and the SNP’s National Survey and growth commission will provide valuable stalling time, but Ms Sturgeon has painted herself into a corner.
She must hope that the pace of the global reaction to Brexit foreshadows the eventual reaction in the UK. We are only at the start of a process that will take at least two years, and in reality has yet to hit home.