New prime minister fighting for the status quo

New prime minister fighting for the status quo
Comment: Prime Minister Theresa May's hawkish foreign policy, backing for the Iraq War, and unwavering support for Israel could backfire on the Conservative leader, boosting Corbyn's appeal, says Tom Charles.
5 min read
13 Jul, 2016
May is tasked with restoring the pride and power of the political establishment [Getty]

Theresa May is the new leader of the Conservative party and by default the UK's new prime minister. Her task is to restore faith in the British political establishment, but her ability to do so will be tested by shifting foreign policy parameters and public anger.

The former home secretary was the overwhelming choice of Tory MPs with 199 parliamentary votes compared to rival Andrea Leadsom's 84. May, who is set to be the UK's new prime minister in the next few hours, was not chosen by the Conservative Party's membership of around 150,000 thanks to Leadsom's withdrawal from the race.

Some party members will question May's mandate, and in a country of 65 million people, she is likely to need to overcome an early general election to secure credibility.

The announcement of May's ascent came less than a week after Sir John Chilcot finally published his report in to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The report vindicated Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's opposition to the war and has further damaged the reputation of a political establishment still reeling from the EU referendum result, with both the "Leave" and "Remain" camps criticised for using scare tactics in their campaigns.

The ability of any government to fulfil the UK's time-honoured role supporting US Middle East policy is now limited like never before. The long delays to the publication of the Chilcot Report allowed governments under David Cameron's premiership to attack both Libya and Syria as well as to support Saudi Arabia's assault on Yemen; none of those interventions have boosted the pro-US argument.


Mrs May faces an uphill task if she is to appeal to a broad section of the electorate. Her tough stance on immigration has been a failure on its own terms, as well as being morally questionable

May's entire 2015 speech to the Conservative Party Conference was on immigration, and sought to blame immigrants for low wages and struggling public services. Her policies have aimed to make life tougher and the UK less welcoming to immigrants.

As home secretary, May took an extremely harsh stance on the refugee crisis. She wanted UK aid only go to refugees who had remained in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. She criticised Germany for agreeing to take 800,000 refugees a year, while defending the UK's decision to provide refuge to just 5,000 annually.


Providing the minimum help to refugees that is politically viable has been May's approach to the subject, and this is combined with an apparent indifference to the causes of the refugee crisis. May's rhetoric since 2010 has featured no acknowledgment of the UK's role in creating the conditions for the refugee crisis.

May's entire 2015 speech to the Conservative Party Conference was on immigration.

When it comes to Middle East policy, May is the epitome of hawkish interventionism and the neo-colonial Conservative approach. She has sought to boost anti-democratic and colonial forces in the region.

In 2014 as home secretary, May signed a "memorandum of understanding" with Saudi Arabia, agreeing to provide the absolute monarchy with UK security cooperation "to help modernise" the Saudi interior ministry and to "draw on UK expertise in the wider security and policing arena".

The memorandum was signed by May under a shroud of secrecy. Even the Liberal Democrats - then in coalition with the Conservatives - had to find out about it via a freedom of information request.

[May appeared] to fall asleep as David Cameron responded to the Chilcot Report, last week.

May's commitment to the intimate Saudi relationship was again evident in 2015 when she supported a £5.9 million ($7.8 million) contract for the UK to help run Saudi prisons. All this at a time of increasing public awareness of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses and growing understanding of the link between the kingdom and the Islamic State group's Wahabbi-Salafi creed.


Theresa May voted for the Iraq War despite so many questions being raised by the public and by some parliamentarians, as well as voting for the military interventions in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. She did not endear herself to those hoping for a new UK approach to the Middle East by appearing to fall asleep as David Cameron responded to the Chilcot Report, last week.

May is also an archetypal Conservative when it comes to Israel, making a fawning speech to the Zionist Youth Movement last year, in which she praised Israel's "brave soldiers who…defend their fellow citizens from indiscriminate terrorist attacks and existential threats".

Like the vast majority of Conservative MPs, May is a member of Conservative Friends of Israel, and in a speech to a CFI reception in 2014, she vowed to "always defend Israel's right to defend itself" and made false claims about Hamas' use of "human shields".

Add in her vagueness about Palestinian rights and international law, and May guarantees a continuation of David Cameron's extreme pro-Israel approach.

Opening for Labour?

So the UK's new prime minister, tasked with restoring the pride and power of the political establishment, is a neo-con hawk unlikely to grasp of what has been laid bare before the country by Chilcot - UK Middle East policy has been shaped by lies and corporate interests.

Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn's credibility has increased post-Chilcot with the vindication of his assiduous anti-war campaigning.

The fact that soon-to-be Prime Minister May is an establishment figure could open the door for Labour when an early election is called. Corbyn will stand in stark contrast to either May, an anti-war, anti-establishment candidate. In the current climate she could struggle to beat him.

Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @tomhcharles

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.