British Prime Minister Theresa May is in a bind and badly needs the threat of the Russian bogeyman in general and the Skripal poisoning scandal in particular. The unceasing attacks against Moscow are what she’s pinning her hopes on, in an effort to save her government, which is facing rough times.
The prime minister is under fire as her Brexit policy is being widely criticized by the opposition as well as within her own party. Calls for a new leader are being heard within the Conservative ranks. The plan from Chequers for the UK’s future relationship with the EU has been vigorously opposed by a large faction of Tories who view the proposed deal as a sellout.
The BBC reported that a group of about 50 lawmakers, part of the anti-EU European Research Group (ERG), met on Sept. 11 to discuss the prime minister’s potential resignation. If just 15% of Conservative MPs (48) back a no-confidence vote, that is enough to launch the election of a new government. There’s no guarantee that the Brexit plan proposed by the government will win by the slim parliamentary majority that the PM hopes to muster.
The plan has also been rejected by the EU. The idea has been floated to hold another referendum on Brexit. Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, has just announced his support for such a scenario. About two in five voters would be highly likely to vote for a new politically centrist party during a future election. Forty-seven percent of them believe Theresa May is not a strong leader.
The British economy is struggling with weak growth. According to the experts at UBS, a global firm providing financial services in over 50 countries, Brexit has already cost Great Britain 2.% of its economic output. Investment has dropped 4%, inflation has risen 1.5%, consumption has slipped 1.7%, and the REER (the real effective exchange rate) is down 12%. The problem of how to share power in Northern Ireland is still unresolved. Theresa May’s attempts to mediate have thus far failed to yield results.
With Russia cast as a major security and foreign-policy threat, Theresa May looks like a strong leader bent on defending her country. The PM hopes to boost the UK’s clout by forcing other nations to rally around it in an effort to “deter” and “contain” Russia, which would include a coordinated sanctions policy, cybersecurity, a military posture, and information warfare. In February, the UK announced it was shifting its defense strategy from a focus on non-state terrorist groups to Russia, China, and North Korea. The move was followed by Defense Minister Gavin Williamson’s demands to significantly increase military spending. The UK and the EU are in talks about creating a new defense pact. The US welcomes the idea. With the UK leading a new European alliance, its interests will be well protected.
It’s only natural that London is seeking to carve out a new role for itself in the new security configuration once it leaves the EU. A new defense pact allows the country to remain part of the European defense deterrent. Any pact needs a raison d'etre. The threat emanating from Russia fits that bill perfectly.
NATO is going through some hard times. The bonds between the US and its European allies are under strain. If a new European alliance emerges, the UK will have a special role to play as a link between the US and Europe.
But there are snags in this process of spearheading the anti-Russian campaign. A new defense alliance cannot be formed, nor can unilateral sanctions against Russia be imposed, until the UK leaves the EU. There’s the rub! According to Security Minister Ben Wallace, “As long as we’re a member of the European Union we can’t unilaterally put the sanctions on; we have to do it unanimously in Europe.” The Sanctions Act has passed parliament but it will have to wait until March 29 — the Brexit date. Moscow has time to prepare for and minimize the effect of the sanctions. One issue is that Theresa May may not be Prime Minister by that time. The EU defense plans and the Russia policy might change after the May 2019 European Parliament election. It’s not known what revisions US foreign policy might undergo after the November 2018 midterms.
Everything could change, and Britain’s plans to bolster its international standing by leading the anti-Russian campaign might not yield the expected results. So, given that possibility, why spoil one’s relationship with a large country that has global influence and is of key importance for European security? The policy assumes increased defense expenditures at a time when Brexit is predicted to have a negative impact on the British economy. Can the UK afford that? With the US losing interest in NATO and shifting toward isolationism, the UK could spearhead the efforts to develop a new pan-European security system. The two countries could start by taking small steps, some of which have been recently proposed by experts from the two countries. Despite the tensions and mistrust, there are still ways to manage that relationship.