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Europe

Few setbacks after 100 days, but May's real test looms

New British Prime Minister Theresa May has drastically broken with her predecessor's agenda with little opposition. But her hardest task - Brexit negotiations with the European Union - is still to come.

When Theresa May became Britain's 54th prime minister in mid-July, she took the helm of a Conservative Party in turmoil, reeling from a shock result in the Brexit referendum on membership in the European Union. The bruising campaign exposed deep fault lines within the Conservative Party, which has long divided on the issue of Europe.

May has now been in office for 100 days, and has made significant breaks with the agenda of her predecessor, David Cameron.

London Premier David Cameron verlässt Downing Street (picture-alliance/PA Wire/P. Toscano)

David Cameron resigned shortly after the UK voted to leave the European Union

"There's been quite a drastic dismantling of Cameron's political agenda and philosophy," said Oliver Patel, a research associate at the European Institute at University College London. "In the 2015 general election, the Conservatives were elected with a specific mandate. The Brexit vote has been used as a mandate to completely veer off that course, even though the referendum was about the EU. That's not necessarily what is supposed to happen in a democracy."

However, the disarray in the Labour Party, which has spent much of the last three months embroiled in its own leadership election, has meant May has faced little opposition thus far.

"Her main strength is actually outside her control and that's the opposition. She is more favored by a weak opposition than almost any PM I can think of," said Matthew Cole, a lecturer in history at Birmingham University. "May can afford to have problems and make mistakes because there's very little chance the opposition is going to capitalize on them as things stand."

Internal divisions

In her first cabinet reshuffle, Chancellor George Osborne and defeated leadership rival Michael Gove were consigned to the backbenches. Phillip Hammond became chancellor and, in an appointment that raised eyebrows in some quarters, the buffoonish former Mayor of London Boris Johnson became foreign secretary.

Großbritanien Pro-EU-Kolumne von Boris Johnson aufgetaucht (Reuters/T. Melville)

Many were bewildered by the choice of Johnson for foreign secretary

"It was a dramatic change of the guard which indicated a determination to leave the Cameron era behind, but, of course, the more dramatic the cabinet change, the more disappointed colleagues there are," said Cole. "There were at least 17 who left against their will, and of course she only has a parliamentary majority of 12, meaning that she only has to disappoint a small number to find herself in great difficulty. We've already started to see people like Osborne criticizing her approach."

May has stressed that she does not want Europe to be the defining feature of her premiership. Yet for all her efforts, her new agenda does not seem to be getting through to ordinary voters.

"She's struggled to get any message out that isn't to do with Brexit. I don't really know what else she's done," said Alex Lawrence-Archer, a consultant from Bristol. "It is also interesting how she has remained very gung-ho after being 'chastened' by the markets with sterling, which makes her either dangerous or foolish - possibly both."

'Brexit means Brexit'

Whatever May's desire to carve out an agenda separate from Britain's relationship to Europe, the biggest question facing the government is clearly how to enact the Brexit referendum result. When questioned, May, who voted to remain in the UK, has repeated the mantra that "Brexit means Brexit."

Flaggen EU und Großbritannien Symbol Brexit (picture-alliance/empics/T. Melville)

Negotiations on exactly how the UK separates from the EU will be May's biggest test

At the Conservative Party conference, she announced that Article 50 would be triggered by the end of March 2017. Her speech indicated a "hard Brexit," meaning a comprehensive break with the EU, including access to the single market.

Many people in Britain are frustrated about the lack of clarity on what comes next.

"There has been no articulation of what kind of country we want beyond one locked in endless consultation about what we want," said Will McCullum, a charity worker from Reading.

Experts have said the really hard work will come when the negotiations begin in earnest.

"Things have been relatively easy so far because not much has happened," said Patel. "We still haven't really got any indication from the government about its negotiating positions. As soon as those decisions are made and the negotiations begin, things will get very difficult."

May will have to balance demands to control immigration with anxiety about the economic implications of withdrawing from the single market.

"When those decisions come, the presentation of them and management of her party will become important," said Cole. "At the moment she's managing expectations, in the future she'll be managing the party itself."

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