Theresa May has few utensils in her kitchen as the Conservative conference opens. She cannot commit to radical legislation, given the numbers in the Commons. Her government must necessarily be consumed by Brexit. There is no evidence that most Tory MPs and party members believe that she can lead them into the next election. Her party must now seek to reinvent itself in office during a third term of Tory-led government. And as Mark Wallace suggested yesterday on this site, ideas for renewal are at least as likely to come from outside the Government as inside.
None the less, governments have stuff in their lockers and cupboards that oppositions to do not – namely, the authority to act via secondary legislation and regulation; the ability to announce reviews and investigations backed by the resources of the civil service, and the initiative that flows from incumbency.
A statement from the Prime Minister pre-conference repeats her mantra of “our plan for a country that truly works for everyone”, and says nothing very new. This may be just as well: she cannot simply lurch off in some new direction without risking her remaining credibility. However, she does mention justice between the generations: “the social contract in our country is that the next generation should always have it better than the last. Conservatives have a plan to make that a reality,” she says. Ironically, all that many remember of her election manifesto is the social care plan that sank her increased majority. This is a pity, since it contained an entire section on “a restored contract between the generations”, including a new from-social-housing-to-right-to-buy scheme that, though slow, had merit.
This is undoubtedly territory that the Party must own if it is to win the support of the under-40s and form a majority, and it is both right and inevitable for it to be a major plank of this week’s conference. For what it’s worth, ConservativeHome has five pieces of advice for May as she hones her announcements.
- Don’t make a mass of panic spending announcements aimed at younger voters in general and students in particular. There is no imminent general election; the Tory poll ratings wouldn’t move for long, if at all; and Jeremy Corbyn would take the credit for setting the policy agenda. No headless chickenry, please.
- Do use the power you have to set up reviews and work up plans – but make sure they’re serious. So if the Prime Minister wants to address student discontent, for example, she should commission a proper study of fees and living costs, to make recommendations by, say, this time next year. She needs some big outside names to work on them, if possible, thereby making her political tent bigger than it currently is. This site has one or two ideas, and will set them out later in the day.
- Embody the change you want to make. The Prime Minister made a serious personal commitment, during her time in the Home Office, to tackling modern slavery. This is what she would call a “burning injustice”, but it has no direct effect on most voters. May should now throw her energies into a cause closer to their hearts. Again, we will write about it later today.
- Don’t get drawn into fights you can’t win (and that that will do no-one else much good). For reasons that we’ve previously set out, the government audit of racial disparities is shaping up to be a nightmare for Downing Street. In the sober words of David Goodhart and Richard Norrie on ConservativeHome, “recommendations risk being ineffective, even counterproductive, while the narrative and media coverage of the reports will reinforce the very minority disaffection that they are seeking to allay”.
- Take the moral high ground. No less pragmatic a politician than George Osborne grasped, when Chancellor, the importance of being on the right side of history. The Prime Minister has a story of over 150 years of progressive conservatism to tell: Disraeli’s reform act, votes for women under the Tories, Willink’s wartime NHS White paper, Butler’s education act, Macmillan’s 300,000 homes, Thatcher’s council house sales, Hague’s disability discrimination act. Why should Labour, now an institutional home for anti-semitism, get away with assuming moral authority?