James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
While Cameron commented endlessly on politics, Theresa May talks rarely and her media team doesn’t do permanent campaigning. We must judge her on high-profile speeches and on decisions made and not.
I previously wrote about specific weaknesses in the Number 10 machine that needed attention. Now we’re further along, what big things define this Government’s operation?
1) May is pragmatic and managerial, not ideological. David Cameron was a pragmatic Prime Minister. He cared about certain issues but left Ministers to set their own agendas within specified parameters.
Theresa May is at least as pragmatic as Cameron but seeks a far tighter grip on the Government machine. Ministers and Departments are given broad policy questions they must answer directly to Number 10.
It’s good to be pragmatic as Prime Minister, and Downing Street rightly manage things more tightly than the previous administration. But there’s a danger in such a mix – that Departments aren’t given a clear enough steer about what’s important, but much is expected.
This tension wasn’t visible in the Autumn Statement but has been on Brexit. While May doesn’t want endless public comment, the advantage of more not less comment (and of ideological clarity) is that Departments get a sense of what’s wanted.
2) Industrial policy is economic policy. Since coming to power, May has focused hard on how to improve the economy outside London and the South East. She rightly moved Government rhetoric away from the Northern Powerhouse concept – which downgraded other parts of the country – and has created a more expansive regional policy.
The Autumn Statement only confirmed the importance of a regional industrial policy for this Government. Philip Hammond talked somewhat about the global economy, but gone is the obsession with the global race and the traditional Tory focus on the City, and in comes a major focus on regional infrastructure, enterprise and productivity.
If the Government means business on anything, it’s this rebalance of the economy – which has the potential to break the Tories into Northern heartlands for the first time.
3) The Government is under-powered on foreign policy. While the Government oozes confidence on regional industrial policy and fizzes with ideas, Brexit and foreign policy look chaotic.
To be fair, this is partly because there are so many moving parts. From Donald Trump’s election and Farage’s mischief making, to hostile comment from EU officials and European politicians, it’s hard to control.
But it’s also because May hasn’t set out a vision on what our relationship with the EU, in the context of a wider global role should look like. She is unwilling to indicate her negotiating strategy. (I don’t see why, but fair enough.)
But without articulating a broad vision, the issue cannot be controlled from a communications or political perspective and more misunderstandings and mistakes will happen. Also, some of the best policy brains on Europe have drifted away – not least from Vote Leave (yes, they should call Dom).
What will come of this Government? Firm predictions are hard. But we should expect rising tension between Number 10 and Departments on policy progress, the increasing dominance of regional industrial strategy and those that work on it, and some serious chaos on the EU.