Few post-war British Prime Ministers have faced as many diplomatic challenges in their tenure, let alone in the same week. Yet, May, who presides over a hugely divided country, torn apart by the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, is likely to emerge with her popularity relatively unscathed.
“I think May’s resolute, determined response to the Westminster attacks will have consolidated in many people’s minds the view that, at a time of crisis and upheaval in Britain, she is the safe pair of hands the country needs,” Jane Merrick, British political journalist and former editor of the Sunday Independent newspaper, told CNN.
“When countries go through turbulence… people want steady, measured and unfussy leadership.”
May received widespread praise for her reaction and leadership in the wake of a terror attack that left four dead and 40 people injured.
The tone and the substance of her speech showed her to be “pretty steely” according to Merrick, something she’ll need in abundance during a week in which she’ll likely be facing fights on multiple fronts.
Power sharing problems in Northern Ireland
The deadline to form a new power-sharing administration at Stormont will be on her radar on Monday.
A snap election in March led to Sinn Féin winning 27 seats, one fewer than the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest in the Executive.
Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangement means nationalists and unionists, who want to remain part of the UK, have to work together, with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister leading the executive.
Sinn Féin won’t go back into the power-sharing arrangement unless Foster steps aside; a situation complicated by McGuinness’ death.
The co-operation established in the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement has broken down and unless a deal is reached Monday, it will leave the British government needing to extend the deadline, calling for another election or re-imposing direct rule.
“I think it’s very clear that the last thing May wants is direct rule,” journalist, historian and author Ruth Dudley-Edwards told CNN.
“She wants them back on course, there’s no ambition for being lumbered with endless talks.
“Sinn Féin love being the center of attention and have Prime Ministers running around them — May’s not going to do that,” she added.
Scotland’s quest for independence
May faces another headache on Tuesday when Scotland’s lawmakers vote on whether to ask Westminster to grant a second independence referendum.
While there has been fierce opposition from the Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour and Scottish Liberal Democrats, the motion is expected to pass.
The Scottish National Party, the largest party in the Parliament, will be backed by the Scottish Green Party, enabling First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to put May under increased pressure.
Sturgeon’s rhetoric has ratcheted up in recent weeks, with the Scot claiming there’s an “unquestionable democratic mandate” for a second independence referendum.
The First Minister says a “hard” Brexit forces Scotland out of the European Single Market and Union against its will. In June, 62% of the Scottish electorate voted to remain in the bloc, something Sturgeon says needs to be taken into account.
She has repeatedly criticized May for her lack of compromise, saying she has been met with a “brick wall of intransigence,” by Westminster over Scotland’s future in the UK.
The two leaders were to meet on Monday for the first time since Sturgeon announced her intention to hold a second independence referendum. May is visiting Scotland in an attempt to promote unity ahead of Wednesday’s triggering of article 50.
But Sturgeon’s sniping is unlikely to have any effect on May’s tactics in dealing with Scotland, according to Alan Cochrane, Scotland Editor of the Daily Telegraph.
May will simply refuse to negotiate with Sturgeon until she is ready, he says, meaning the Prime Minister will remain in pole position.
“May has massive problems… but the biggest gamble is Sturgeon’s,” Cochrane said.
“Sturgeon has to get a referendum, she has nothing else. Her domestic policies aren’t working — the only policy she has is another referendum.”
Article 50 will be triggered
It comes days after the EU celebrated its 60th anniversary in Rome — a celebration that took place without the British Prime Minister.
Ever since Britain voted to leave the EU in June 2016, the war of words between London and Brussels has been played out across the media, with both sides promising to not to back down.
But for May this situation is particularly complicated. As an unelected Prime Minister, she is faced with the prospect of carrying out a plan she opposed during the referendum campaign and attempting to heal an increasingly divided country.
While May has shied away from labeling the departure a “divorce,” those in Europe have not been so careful in their use of the word and the pre-game talk from both sides has done little to suggest these negotiations will be a polite and simple affair.
May has already said she would take “no deal” over a bad deal, while critics have suggested such a move would be folly and leave Britain trading under World Trade Organization rules after withdrawing from the Single Market.
President of the European Council Donald Tusk has already warned Downing Street not to use threats ahead of the negotiations, insisting the 27-member block will not be “intimidated.”
Tusk’s assertion is likely to ring true with Brussels’ lead negotiator Michel Barnier, who is expected to strike a hard bargain with the British.
While trade will certainly be one of the areas up for discussion, so will be the future of EU nationals living in Britain and British nationals living in the other 27 member states.
In his speech last week, Barnier said guaranteeing the futures of EU nationals in Britain would be an “absolute priority from the very start of negotiations.”
“If the UK wants to be credible in the negotiation it has to make it clear that it is prepared to walk away if it believes the deal on the table is a bad one,” Vincenzo Scarpetta, senior policy analyst at Open Europe, told CNN.
“Most importantly, it has to prepare for a no deal scenario because if you have to have a plan B when entering a negotiation… otherwise the other side will call their bluff.”
Scarpetta believes both parties will become increasingly open to a transitional deal of some type.
“The transition has to be a gradual movement to a new relationship with the EU. It can’t be just extending the status quo.”
Given the challenges May faces on three fronts, the status quo appears an unlikely outcome. For both the Prime Minister and the United Kingdom change will be a constant for the foreseeable future.