A new prime minister – what might change (and what probably won’t)

After months of speculation, and in the face of what are expected to be dire European election results for the Conservative party, Theresa May has announced that she will resign as prime minister. Her premiership has of course been dominated by Brexit, and her failure to agree a deal to leave the EU with parliament. There might however be some public sympathy given the unique difficulties she has faced, and her successor could find that being a new broom is not enough to provide any easy answers.

The prime minister will formally stand down as leader of the Conservative party on Friday 7 June. She will remain as prime minister until the conclusion of a leadership contest.

The winner of that contest is likely to be invited to form a new government. Conservative MPs will start by whittling down the (likely to be numerous) candidates to a final two, who will be put to the Conservative membership. The unpredictability of Conservative leadership elections means that it might just be better to wait until they’ve got down to the final two. If you do want to follow, now is a good time to brush up on how they work.

It’s difficult to know exactly how the membership will vote as this is the first time they have had the opportunity to elect a new leader since 2005, when David Cameron beat David Davis. But polling has consistently suggested the winner will likely be someone who is more pro-Brexit and probably more in favour of leaving the EU without a deal.

The Conservative approach to Brexit will change

One thing that is likely to change in the months ahead is Conservative party policy on Brexit. The winning candidate is likely to have spoken strongly against the current withdrawal agreement, even if they have at some point voted for it. They will also probably seek some sort of renegotiation of that agreement or pursue leaving the EU without a deal.

But there probably won’t be a majority for their deal (or no-deal)

However, one thing that will stay the same is the parliamentary arithmetic, and even the most skilled leader will not be able to immediately conjure a Commons majority for a particular form of Brexit. If they try to push to leave without a deal, parliament may again seek to prevent this – though Maddy Thimont Jack, from the Institute for government, has highlighted that MPs may not be able to stop a prime minister who is determined to leave the EU without a deal. Charities should not be complacent about further extensions to Article 50. If you haven’t done any planning it’s probably a good idea to go through the government’s checklist for charities and our Brexit planning guidance.

The shape of the limited non-Brexit agenda will change

A new leader is likely to want to bring some sort of agenda beyond Brexit, if only to offer some sort of differentiation in the upcoming leadership election. We’ve already seen Dominic Raab indicate he would seek big tax cuts, and Esther McVey suggesting she would cut international aid. So charities should be on the lookout for ideas that fit in with their agenda, as well as potential threats to their cause.

It also means that some May initiatives are likely to fall by the wayside. So, if there are positive things going on currently, be prepared to think about how you might sell them to an incoming minister.

But don’t expect there to be space for non-Brexit policy issues

The new prime minister will not however be able to remove the need for significant civil service time to be spent on Brexit, so don’t expect there to be lots of space opening up for your favoured proposals. If anything, a new leader will probably expand no-deal planning to demonstrate to the EU that we are prepared to leave without a deal. This looks like more of the same for charities trying to influence policy decisions. Your opportunities will probably be brief and require limited civil service time, so it might make sense to make your initial asks small, and focus on big changes through the spending review, and the parties’ manifestos.

Electoral calculations

The European elections are likely to follow on from the local elections in suggesting big challenges for the two main parties, particularly the Conservatives. The 2017 Conservative vote has largely moved to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, and the new leader is likely to face calls to agree a pact or adopt their policies to head off the threat at future elections.

Remain voters from the Labour and Conservatives parties also appear to be moving towards the more explicitly pro-remain parties. Labour are likely to face calls to fully commit to a second referendum.

European success could also fuel further success so charities might want to think about their approach to smaller parties with the Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats in particular likely to be eyeing up favourable by-elections. Though, despite current polls, it’s unclear whether current dissatisfaction with major parties will continue to be reflected in a general election.

More uncertainty

The one thing virtually guaranteed to stay the same is a lack of political stability and certainty. For much of this year it seemed unlikely that European elections would even take place. And now it looks like the winning party will be one that didn’t exist last year.

So charities will need to monitor what is happening, but it will be almost impossible to make any long-term decisions based on what you think the political environment is going to look like. When political opportunities arise you will need to move quickly as they may not last for long. And you should make sure your planning fully acknowledges the risks of continuing instability, and in particular the prospect of the UK leaving the EU without a deal.

However, all this may also represent the opportunity to escape the day-to-day noise and really think about what you want the future to look like. This means putting in place long-term strategies that will serve you well when we are in a position to move into the next phase of Brexit.

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Chris is NCVO’s public affairs manager, focusing on parliamentary work. He started his career working for several MPs in Parliament, and has also worked in public affairs and policy roles for the Federation of Small Businesses.

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