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”.
In the space of a week, we’ve heard Theresa May’s two most important interventions since she became Prime Minister: her Brexit speech; and now the outline of the Government’s new industrial strategy, which has been billed as the economic policy that will make Brexit viable.
In these two events she has shown how different she is to David Cameron – and indeed most recent Prime Ministers. In both, she has been prepared to make hugely high profile comments without worrying about policy-based “stories” – which David Cameron was particularly obsessed with – and also without policies fully formed.
She has been willing to say substantial things but to make clear that ideas are essentially works in progress. Critics could easily suggest that she isn’t on top of complex detail. But it’s not that simple: her complete rejection of the established way of running Government means she is uninterested in playing the traditional Westminster game where opposition politicians and sceptical journalists pick tiny holes in what are presented as the final word from Governments. By making it clear that the biggest decisions are the ones that require the most thinking, she seeks to avoid traditional traps.
Not only does it mark a substantial departure from previous British Prime Ministers, it is 180 degrees different to the approach taken by the man she will meet at the end of the week: Donald Trump. Trump tweets instantly on the most important matters and works backwards. It will be interesting to see how their different approaches manifest in the post-meeting briefings that will follow.
I questioned last week whether much of the content of May’s Europe speech was forced upon her and whether what she said was primarily about shoring up her position with key domestic audiences – or whether it came from principle and careful thought. I still believe it’s too early to tell.
But the announcement on the industrial strategy leans me towards the latter: that she says only what she is sure about. The fact she prefers initially to articulate positioning rather than detail reflects only that she is sure about those big things – and that she is happy for detail to be worked out collectively after.
This is no bad thing in principle. It might be sensible and it’s certainly the way many successful executives go about things. Would she get away with this with a powerful Opposition? Who knows? This self-consciously mature approach can be strongly defended under the most intense pressure, but she is lucky there’s no prospect of that anytime soon.