In her first week in Number Ten, Theresa May proven herself not to be one to shirk a battle. Having dismantled the old order in Parliament, the Prime Minister is now setting herself up for another battle: with the lobby groups.
Today’s Times quotes the British Medical Association and others already going on the attack over the Government’s decision to delay publication of its promised ‘obesity strategy’.
They’re clear what they want: more rules, more taxes, and less regard for the old-fashioned concepts of individual responsibility and choice.
For all her authoritarian reputation, on so-called ‘nanny state’ issues at least May does not share their instincts, according to Chris Snowden of the Institute of Economic Affairs. Perhaps she recognises that there are vast practical and moral differences between the ‘safety net’ model of a social state and the modern ‘straightjacket’ alternative.
One of the most promising aspects of May’s first week in office has been the apparent shift towards what our editor calls “grown-up government” – a shift away from the Cameroon tendency to prioritise tactical celerity over strategic purpose.
Amongst the many downsides of lacking a strong sense of long-term purpose is that it leaves a Government highly susceptible to being blown this way and that by external pressures.
Despite some welcome moves against sock-puppetry – charities and interest groups using Government funds to lobby the Government – the previous regime was still highly susceptible to pressure from outside lobbies, especially in areas like public health.
Getting a grip on this regulatory ratchet is essential if the Prime Minister wants to make good on her promises to control public spending and make the Government, and the economy, operate with greater respect for ordinary citizens. After all, most lobbies demand much the same thing: more laws and more spending.
As any of her pro-Leave Cabinet colleagues will tell her, when the Government is susceptible to lobbying it leads to regulatory regimes which favour large firms over the small, and privilege the well-connected – this 70-second clip from Brexit: The Movie gives a flavour of the problem, and I have written previously about how proposed tobacco licences could devastate small shops.
Lobbying is so effective because it exerts constant, well-targeted pressure on individual Government departments, too many of whom draw up policy proposals without taking adequate account of factors beyond their own goals and targets.
Worse, a minister can often carry baggage from one post into a new position intended to act as a counterweight, as seems to have happened when Anna Soubry moved from Health to the Department for Business.
This Parliament will be dominated by the Brexit negotiations, securing the future of the Union, and continuing the incomplete work of repairing the public finances – in short it will be long on distractions. It would be very easy – and understandable – if May ended up taking her eyes off the lobbyists and finding domestic policy once again being directed by external headwinds.
If this is to be avoided, the Government needs a gatekeeper: a body to scrutinise and challenge regulatory proposals, take a pro-active role in championing re-regulation, and provide a countervailing pressure on ministers from the direction of the Government’s priorities: respect for the ordinary citizen, controlling public spending, and cutting red tape.