Mal Fletcher
The PM is Gone - Long Live the PM

The late author and futurist Alvin Toffler wrote in the 1970s of a "roaring current of change" which would leave many people feeling bewildered and anxious. He could have been writing prophetically about the past few weeks in British national life.

Many will hope that today will mark the beginning of the end of the nagging uncertainty that has dogged Britain's national debate for the past months, since well before the EU referendum vote.

Tonight Britain has a new Prime Minister and with it a potentially fresh approach to negotiating the nation's post-Brexit place in the world.

At the formal request of HM the Queen, Theresa May was asked this evening to form a new government.

This comes after the most turbulent period in British politics in recent memory. It follows the resignation of a premier who would have expected to be around for at least another two years.

David Cameron bade farewell to Prime Minister’s Question Time earlier in the day. It was an appearance marked by moments of levity, alongside discussion of some still pressing social issues.

Mr Cameron later spoke to the nation from the steps of 10 Downing Street, surely the most photographed front door in the world, before leaving to tender his resignation at Buckingham Palace.

In all, today provided a reminder of all that makes the British political system such an enduring one.

On these occasions, the British political tradition mixes formality with humanity and provides a sense of much needed continuity in turbulent times.

The former Home Secretary, the nation’s second female Prime Minister, faces a huge challenge overseeing Britain’s divorce from the EU, something which she did not support pre-referendum.

On its own, this would represent a major time- and energy-consuming project for any world leader. For a freshly installed head of government it represents an even more formidable challenge.

Alongside this historic transition in Britain’s national life and her place in the world, there are the pressing social, economic and political challenges that face any government.

Theresa May’s previous record as Home Secretary suggests that she is a serious and conscientious politician, driven by a sense of duty and a desire to produce benefits for all in society.

Just an hour after David Cameron’s last speech at Downing Street, Ms May delivered her first from the same podium. She reminded people that the full title of her party is the Conservative and Unionist Party. She wants not only to maintain the United Kingdom, she said, but to provide the groundwork for a wider society that is also more unified and inclusive.

“When it comes to opportunity,” announced the new PM, “we won’t entrench the opportunities of the privileged few.” Her goal, she said, would be to help people to achieve as much as their talents allow.

For his part, David Cameron listed economic stabilisation and jobs growth as two of the major achievements of his government. He also cited an increased commitment in overseas aid and spoke of improvements in the NHS.

The latter point will be debated by healthcare professionals and patients alike and the health service will continue to throw up difficulties in the years ahead.

The NHS – or at least an idealised image of it – is much beloved of the British public.

Yet it will become ever harder to fund, unless taxes are significantly raised or people are forced to pay for certain services.

On his way back from the Palace, Mr Cameron might well have reflected on the speed with which his resignation had come about. He clearly did not expect to lose the Brexit vote.

As with the Scottish independence referendum, Mr Cameron appeared quite laid back in his expectations of the EU referendum. It wasn’t until late in the campaign that, in public at least, he rolled up his sleeves and began, somewhat anxiously, to urgently beseech people to vote Remain.

This last-minute approach to things may simply be a reflection of the fact that Mr Cameron was, when installed six years ago, the youngest Prime Minister Britain had seen in almost 200 years.

One wonders what he might have achieved – and avoided – if he’d entered Number 10 with ten years more life experience under his belt. Perhaps he might have drawn back from an EU vote altogether.

He might also have been slower to toe a liberal line on an issue as important as the definition of marriage, a foundation of society. He promised a robust public debate on the issue, but delivered only a very controlled discussion within the confines of Westminster.

Many members of his party – plus more people in the wider community than the media might acknowledge – remain annoyed by this rush to change something which is fundamental to our social fabric.

I wonder whether history will judge his term as PM as the story of one referendum that should not have been called and a non-referendum that should.

If so, it will be because David Cameron was more of a political tactician than a strategist. A professing born optimist, Mr Cameron is also clearly not someone who wants to think for too long about the law of unintended consequences.

In the end, it was to David Cameron’s credit that he stepped aside quickly, allowing events to move forward with regard to Brexit negotiations. Fortunately, after much back-stabbing, the Conservatives moved fairly rapidly to resolve their – and the nation’s – leadership question.

The speed and relative smoothness of the change stands in stark contrast to the ongoing upheaval on the other side of the political divide.

Mr Cameron’s last appearance at the House of Commons despatch box also served as a reminder of one or two of the less seemly aspects of British politics.

The SNP used one of its two questions to goad the incoming Prime Minister at a time when the House was affirming the outgoing one.

A second SNP question turned into a short rant, which opportunistically promoted the idea of a second independence vote. The Scottish Nationalists then revealed an ugly meanness of spirit by declining to join the warm and lengthy general applause for David Cameron as he left the chamber.

Labour didn’t afford Mr Cameron a standing ovation in the way that the latter, in opposition, had done for Tony Blair. But Labour members and their leader Jeremy Corbyn, often the punchline in a Cameron joke, were generally warm in their tributes and joined the final acclamation.

In the end, this has been the type of day that was wholly unexpected a few weeks ago – and one for which there had been little or no preparation.

However, the traditions of the system promoted a sense of permanence. I firmly believe that, as at other times in this nation’s storied history, the pluck, determination and innovative skill of its people will reveal themselves in the coming months and years.

There are some interesting and perhaps turbulent times ahead. Yet the manner of this change of government and the vigorous public involvement in pre-referendum campaigning, reflect a nation that is ready, at least in principle, to engage the future. 

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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