Is Theresa May growing in confidence again? At the weekend, the Prime Minister warned Brexit rebels against blocking Britain leaving the EU, and tried to force their hands by tabling an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill on the date of Brexit. That hasn’t gone down so well with the rebels, who are variously tabling their own amendments to try to strike out that proposal and describing May as being ‘tin-eared’. But it did suggest that the Prime Minister felt more like challenging her critics than she has for a while. The problem is that the way she has previously challenged her critics has indeed made her look tin-eared and a little entitled, as she did when she called the snap election, complaining about those who wanted to frustrate the government.
A more successful course of action from a confident Prime Minister was in evidence last night when May spoke at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet. She chose to make her strongest remarks about the threat of Russia in this speech, saying:
‘And the comprehensive new economic partnership we seek will underpin our shared commitment to open economies and free societies in the face of those who seek to undermine them. Chief among those, of course, is Russia.’
She listed the actions of Russia which threaten the international order, including annexing Crimea, fomenting conflict in the Donbas and cyber espionage and disruption, and added:
‘So I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed. Because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies, and the commitment of Western nations to the alliances that bind us.’
Aside from the importance of taking a stronger stance on Russia, rather than suggesting to Vladimir Putin that he can really do whatever he fancies, this is also good domestic politics. It’s the trick that many leaders use of trying to unite their country around a foreign enemy, to distract from the domestic chaos. Britain knows this all too well, given the way Spain and Argentina use Gibraltar and the Falklands as devices for distracting from the problems of their own governments. In addition, taking a strong stance on Russia works well when your opposition is at best ambivalent about the way the country behaves and at worst supportive of some of its territorial ambitions.
However, in practical terms, tougher rhetoric isn’t enough to make Putin reconsider his plans. And foreign affairs and defence hawks will note that this speech doesn’t exactly make up for leaving Russia to it in the Syrian conflict. But it is interesting that May seems to have decided both that she can make a stronger intervention and that she should make a canny one, rather than complaining endlessly about rebellious Tory MPs.