Somewhere in Beijing, almost as I write, Nick Timothy is calculating whether to sleep with his beard inside or outside the sheets, as he solemnly removes his pinstriped suit from within them. (Theresa May’s co-Chief of Staff has no wish to be filmed removing it outside them by a hidden camera.) Earlier, he has courteously evaded the gorgeous, pouting Chinese cultural attache who indicated that she wished to join him there, in order to continue their passionate discussion of Joe Chamberlain’s ideas about clean water provision. (He doesn’t want to follow in the footsteps of the Gordon Brown-era SpAd who acted otherwise, and woke up in the morning “minus his Blackberry and half the contents of his briefcase”.)
As he does so, he is pondering not only his view of his hosts, as shared with ConservativeHome readers (“rational concerns about national security are being swept to one side because of the desperate desire for Chinese trade and investment”), but his approach to foreign affairs as whole (“we need to rediscover the principles of a traditional, realist, conservative foreign policy. Value stability. Respect sovereignty. Do not make foreign policy part of an ideological crusade. Do not try to recreate the world in your own image. Do not, however much you might disapprove of a dictator’s abuse of human rights, use that as a pretext for regime change. Always act on the basis of the national interest. Above all, understand the risk involved when things change in complex and volatile states”).
It is all too easy to assume that May’s views are always the same as Timothy’s – understandably so, given her decision to put George Osborne’s plan for Chinese investment in Hinckley Point on hold. But the context within which he wrote those last words for his site offer a clue to her view of foreign policy. He was writing for this site about the Chilcot report, and May is the first post Iraq-war Tory leader. I do not mean by this that she came to the Commons after it. That is palpably not so, since she was first elected to Westminster six years earlier. Indeed, she not only voted in favour of the invasion, but viewed the run-up to the vote from a senior vantage, since she was a member of the Shadow Cabinet at the time.
Rather, I mean that she is the first leader of her party since the war not to be emotionally shaped or even scarred by it when it comes to foreign affairs. Iain Duncan Smith strongly supported the war at the time. Michael Howard later fell out badly with George W.Bush, then America’s President, over his criticism of Tony Blair’s conduct of it. In opposition, David Cameron distanced himself from liberal intervention abroad (“we cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet – and we shouldn’t try”). In government, he moved closer to it, persuasing the Commons to back military action against Gaddafi in Libya and failing to do so over missile strikes against Assad in Syria. But all alike have lived in the shadow of Blair’s decision to pursue military action.
Iraq, however, seems less important in shaping May’s view of the world than her long sojourn in Marsham Street, where she worked as the longest-serving Home Secretary since the war. Like her former and present SpAd, she tends to peer out at it through the prism of security. Like him again, she prizes the ideal of the national interest (which is already being deployed to re-shape aid policy). Like him, too, she is cool and cautious about approaching the outside world. She has no record of engagement with America, let alone the Republicans. (If Donald Trump becomes President, theirs will not be a diplomatic marriage made in heaven.) She speaks warmly of China, echoing Osborne’s hope of a “golden era”, but acts coldly: she will not be rushed into giving a final verdict on the Hinckley Point plan.
She is due to meet Vladimir Putin. As Home Secretary, she will have looked at Russia, too, through the prism of security, presiding over the Litvinenko Inquiry report. But her focus as Prime Minister will be closer to home. Today’s Sunday Telegraph reports that she wants trade talks with Australia. This is doubtless partly to take the shine off Barak Obama sticking to his “back of the queue” line about a US-UK trade deal, but it is a clear enough sign of her priority. May will not be able to escape those unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld called them, or even known unknowns like further fall-out from Islamist extremism. But her focus will be on dealing with the biggest post-war policy challenge that a British Prime Minister has faced – dealing with the consequences of the Brexit vote.
There is a central paradox. At the coming Party Conference, May and her colleagues will champion prospective trade deals and proclaim a Global Britain. But she be looking inward to look outward: at a Commons where roughly three quarters of MPs were pro-Remain (including a majority within her own party; at a Lords where the pro-Remain majority is even bigger; at Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon is manoeuvering to force a second independence referendum, and at Northern Ireland, where she will have to square a particular policy of no border controls with a more general policy of toughening them. Looking further afield, she is unlikely to have Blair-style illusions of a special relationship with America’s President. Abroad if not at home, Brexit is everything, Brexit is all.