So much to do beyond Brexit

Published by The ipaper (9th January, 2017)

It is strange that Theresa May’s honeymoon period has lasted so long, given her abrupt ascent to power and the deep divisions scarring post-referendum Britain. There still feels something new and vaguely enigmatic about our prime minister, although she has now been in post for six months after six years in the home office. So when the usual furore exploded over honours doled out to party donors and Whitehall jobsworths, her aides were able to duck for cover by blaming her predecessor.

Certainly polls remain heavily in May’s favour. The Tories are 13 points clear over Labour, with fewer than one in seven voters believing Jeremy Corbyn would make a better prime minister. As the Fabian Society pointed out last week, barely half those backing Labour in 2015 would do so now, which might see the party shrink to fewer than 150 seats after the next election. Ukip and the Liberal Democrats pose equally little threat to her dominance.

May sailed into this comfortable position after winning the nation’s top job without much of a leadership struggle, let alone a general election. She was greeted with relief the given dreadful alternatives, then made an assured statement on the steps of Downing Street. Beyond the gathering storm clouds of Brexit, however, the most memorable moments of her time in power have been a bungled shift on grammar schools and a silly squabble over the cost of leather trousers. Now she must reveal her true colours.

So at the weekend she unveiled plans for a ‘shared society’, which sound suspiciously like a rebranding of David Cameron’s much-maligned Big Society, and then gave her first television interview of the year. There was laudable talk of banishing the stigma of mental health as she tried to lay down a domestic agenda. But with weary inevitability, headlines were dominated by her indication that Britain’s membership of the European Union’s single market would be sacrificed to appease unwarranted concerns over immigration.

This symbolised the problem facing May. Brexit will overshadow everything and define her premiership. This damaging exercise will drain political capital, dominate national debate, disrupt economic growth and suck energy from the country at a time of global turbulence. Already the mantra of taking back control has mutated into assaults on parliamentary sovereignty, judicial impartiality and civil service neutrality. With a tiny majority, May must confront a multitude of competing claims while leading negotiations with 27 nations that impact on every economic sector.

Given squalls ahead on the Brexit front, May needs something else to tell the electorate. The weekend efforts to set out her stall took place against a backdrop of gathering doubts over her substance – underscored in cruel terms by The Economist with a damning ‘Theresa Maybe’ cover. The magazine repeated mutterings being heard in Westminster over whether she is simply another Gordon Brown, arriving in Downing Street with formidable reputation only to shrivel in office.

Yet May is a more complex politician than she often appears, a wily operator driven less by ideology than a sense of pragmatic decency. At the Home Office, her stance on immigration was appalling – yet she was moved into action by issues such as child sex abuse, modern slavery, racist police policies and deaths in custody. Now there is talk of sweeping aside ‘everyday injustices’ in social care and mental health treatment, while she wants to fight cyber-bullying and plans a new industrial strategy to cut into the left’s terrain.

But will she be bold, banishing natural caution? Clearly she seeks to differentiate herself from the individualism of Margaret Thatcher and the cosmopolitanism of Cameron. She shares her predecessor’s desire to broaden Tory appeal, hence her welcome talk of tackling ‘the shorter life expectancy for those born poor, the harsher treatment of black people in the criminal justice system, the lower chances of white working-class boys going to university.’ It would be good to see the agenda widened further still to include real prison reform and help for people with disabilities; abolishing the bedroom tax would be a start.

May’s modernising credentials have been apparent since her infamous ‘nasty party’ speech in 2002 when she talked also about active government and opposition to ‘a philosophy that lets people sink or swim’. Her version aims to be less elitist, less liberal, less metropolitan. But amid the hype, do not miss the detail. For all the talk of a new industrial strategy, for example, we should not ignore that Cameron’s government became increasingly interventionist from tax breaks for creative industries through to the northern powerhouse. And May backtracked over plans to push workers onto company boards.

Housing remains one of Britain’s biggest problems, with communities minister Sajid Javid pledging ‘major, long-lasting reform.’ But few Whitehall insiders believe May will get much traction for a major assault on planning restrictions to ensure hundreds of thousands more homes are built. She must overcome loud conservation lobbies, anachronistic Green Belt rules and obstructive nimbies, often backed by Tory MPs in the south-east areas most needing new estates. And note how under recent headlines of 14 new garden villages, the government only put up £6m to deliver them.

The nation needs more than sticking plaster policies. It needs a leader with steel to solve profound problems from corporate greed through to crippled social care, from massive housing shortages through to often-shoddy health services. May is saying some of the right things; I suspect her heart is in the right place. But does she really have the belief and the bottle to solve deep-rooted issues? Or will she just be dragged down by the dislocation of Brexit and harsh realities of governing with a tiny majority in this sharply divided nation?

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