Theresa May has now been Prime Minister for 60 days. It’s never too soon to start forming judgements. So what have we learned so far about our new Prime Minister? Actually, rather a lot says Alastair Meeks.
Her new slogan is her manifesto
Theresa May’s conversion to grammar schools has attracted a lot of attention. Her speech is worth reading because it sets out her philosophy. She delivered it in front of the slogan: “A country that works for everyone” and said the following:
“It means putting government firmly on the side of not only the poorest in our society, important though that is and will remain, but also of those in Britain who are working hard but just about managing. It means helping to make their lives a little easier; giving them greater control over the issues they care about the most.
This is the change we need. It will mean changing some of the philosophy underpinning how government thinks and acts. It will mean recalibrating how we approach policy development to ensure that everything we do as government helps to give a fair chance to those who are just getting by – while still helping those who are even more disadvantaged.”
On a superficial reading, the new slogan could be interpreted as trying to heal the rifts caused by the EU referendum. As the speech made clear, it goes deeper. Theresa May is repudiating a focus exclusively on redistribution to alleviate poverty and is seeking to help more directly the battlers and strivers. Conservatives win overall majorities with such voters, as Margaret Thatcher, John Major (first time around) and David Cameron (second time around) could attest. Things are less rosy when they lose those voters, as John Major (second time around) and William Hague could attest. Theresa May has taken note. From a Conservative perspective, she’s on the right track.
Disloyalty is fatal
Theresa May’s Cabinet is conspicuous by some absences. Despite needing to accommodate the Leave camp, she felt unable to include either Michael Gove or Iain Duncan Smith in her Cabinet. The second most senior Remainer, George Osborne, also ended up on the cutting room floor. The common thread seems to be their love of political machinations. Evidently Theresa May wants to be surrounded by people that she trusts and is not prepared to give houseroom to those she regards as unscrupulous, no matter how clever they are.
She’s an interventionist Prime Minister
Theresa May has gathered power into her hands. She unravelled the decision on Hinkley Point, not hesitating to embarrass her newly-appointed Chancellor. She was equally quick to correct David Davis’s comments at the despatch box about Britain being unlikely to stay in the single market. She is apparently keeping a tight rein on media comments by ministers.
This control-freakery is very reminiscent of Gordon Brown and represents a stark contrast with David Cameron, who conspicuously gave his ministers their head. That wouldn’t necessarily matter were it not for the fact that it seems that…
Having embarrassed Philip Hammond over Hinkley Point, Theresa May has left the project in limbo two months on. She has deferred (yet again) the decision on a new runway at Heathrow, having chosen to chair the committee considering it. She will rarely be more powerful than the moment when she became Prime Minister. That was the time for clearing the decks.
Gordon Brown showed that dithering micromanagement is not a successful strategy for a Prime Minister. Theresa -May is going to need to loosen up a bit.
She identifies her political constraints and develops policy backwards from that
That said, the Prime Minister is right to keep close control of how Brexit will develop. Brexit is going to be the dragon in the gate of her government. The central decisions are going to be hugely controversial and the outcome will define her administration.
She has correctly identified that she needs to give a high priority to securing restrictions on immigration in negotiations. The public expects this and she is going to need to show that she has delivered enough on this.
Often policy formation is not about what might be best in the abstract but about what is politically achievable. Theresa May held on as Home Secretary for 6 years understanding that. Those skills will stand her in good stead when dealing with Brexit.
But she isn’t a tactician
The Prime Minister has already managed to create a powerful group of enemies within her party that will be willing to work together when the occasion arises. The Notting Hill set now sit on the backbenches and are no doubt discontented. With a government majority of 12, they will strike whenever they think appropriate. They might even do so over the Prime Minister’s flagship policy on grammar schools. The Prime Minister has more or less ruled out an early election. Soon enough she will come to realise what David Cameron already knew – a small majority enervates any government. A government with so much to do needs all the dynamism it can muster. She should change her mind about that early election.