Last week, as James Forsyth reported yesterday in the Sun, the new Cabinet sub-committe on Economic and Industrial Strategy met, and discussed foreign takeovers of British companies, executive pay and worker representation on boards. Theresa May’s interventionist instincts on these matters have been evident ever since her speech to ConservativeHome in 2013.
According to Forsyth, Philip Hammond made the case for a conventional Conservative free market approach to all three, arguing that protectionism, or anything that looks like it, would be perilous for a post-Brexit Britain that must continue to attract investment from abroad.
ConservativeHome is told that the Chancellor was backed up by others, including Sajid Javid and Michael Fallon. Javid said last year, while Business Secretary: “I don’t particularly like the word strategy coupled with industrial.” Last week, he offered up a quote for the media in support of the new Northern Powerhouse project launched by his old mentor, George Osborne – who was unceremoniously fired as Chancellor by May. This was certainly loyal and arguably brave.
Then again, it was perhaps less bold than it looks. For the plain fact is that the Prime Minister, with her small working majority, cannot easily discipline or sack Ministers without consequences – not now that she has fired or demoted so many who flourished under the Cameron and Osborne regime: Michael Gove, Nicky Morgan, John Whittingdale, Theresa Villiers, Matthew Hancock, Greg Hands.
Furthermore, there is a knock-on effect from promoting so many experienced and older Ministers. Since some are nearer the end of their careers in Government than the start, these are not particularly frightened of being dismissed, and so will speak their minds.
The Chancellor is plainly going to tell it as he sees it. Fallon is 64, and could reasonably conclude that he is holding his last post in Government. David Davis is 67 – which leads to the next point. May cannot easily afford to lose from Cabinet any of the Three Brexiteers: Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson. To be fair to her (and why would we not seek to be?), she seems to welcome a revival of traditional Cabinet Government. “May, to her credit, allowed the discussion to run. She did not try and shut down debate,” Forsyth wrote of last week’s meeting.
Is this development a strength or a weakness? If Prime Ministers seek to by-pass Cabinet – like Margaret Thatcher in her latter days, or Tony Blair for much of his administration – they are accused of arrogance: of contemptuously flouting the proper norms of government. If they use Cabinet or its committees as a sounding-board, they are charged with weakness, as John Major was after his pre-1992 election honeymoon.
Either way, constitutional theory is one thing, political practice another. It is too early to know whether or not this more collegiate style of government will work for May. But there are two points about the context in which it is being exercised that are worth noting.
First, the flow of power to senior Cabinet members is taking place at the same time as a counter-flow to senior Downing Street advisers. The Mail on Sunday and the Sun on Sunday are among today’s vehicles for complaints about centralisation under the Prime Minister’s two Chiefs of Staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, our former columnist (Hammond is apparently unhappy). Second, May is not matching the slimness of her majority to caution. During and after her leadership campaign, she distanced herself from her predecessor on key matters of style and substance.
Her opening message to her first Cabinet Minister was that “politics isn’t a game”. She will have known well that Cameron and especially Osborne were critcised for allegedly taking that view, and have known exactly how those words were bound to be reported. She complained in her membership stage leadership launch speech of a lack of “deep economic reform”. These are but two examples of each.
Last week, we set out ten ways in which she has parted from the policies of her predecessor. Today’s Observer lists two more: “bold plans for tackling obesity have been watered down. Tory housing policy, so long focused on home ownership, is to be recast with more emphasis on helping those in the rented sector”.
As we say, it is too early to know whether this combination of bold policy changes, a slender majority, plain-speaking senior Cabinet Ministers and a new concentration of power in Downing Street is going to work. Towards the end of her time in office, Thatcher became unable to make government work for her. She had come to rely heavily on a duo of Charles Powell and Bernard Ingham.
Blair, by contrast, had a larger political staff. He was prone to deploy fixers. Unlike her predecessor, May has never regarded herself as an “heir to Blair”. But if she intends to finish as boldly as she has started, the Prime Minister should have a look at how he made government work for him. And he had a majority of 179 when he first won in 1997. May has a formal one of 16, a Lords that is suspicious of her government at best and hostile at worst, and no manifesto mandate for the most distinctive plan she was produced to date (the grammar school expansion proposal).