Thomas Hogg is a startup founder based in London and Hamburg.
We are living amongst the stormiest of British political times since the Second World War. On the face of it, there are two main political parties – the same ones as in 1945 – but, just under the surface, we can see four or five movements, from neo-traditionalist to Marxist. At the helm, we have a woman standing somewhere between two or three of these nascent movements, holding us on course for a destination to which many don’t want to go. Some are trying to turn us back, and others are worried we’ll never make it. Perhaps most astounding is what has been achieved in this time, considering the circumstances thus far.
Getting her priorities right
When Theresa May stood before the door of Number 10 for the first time as Prime Minister, she said “We believe in a union not just between the nations of the United Kingdom but between all of our citizens – every one of us – whoever we are and wherever we’re from.” She was right. That sense of fraternity between British citizens is what makes us a nation, rather than a disparate group of individuals living coincidentally on the same island. The need to strengthen our Union is the first requirement of our society – May saw that when many did not.
But the Prime Minister’s government was always going to be defined by one policy: leaving the European Union. A reluctant remainer, she was the perfect choice to unify the country. Even so, with a wafer-thin majority, she was going to need all the help she could get.
The Snap election
Every decision comes with risk. Without it, there’s no success. But to call an election seemed like a small one last April. Mike Gapes described his fellow Labour MPs as “turkeys voting for Christmas”. It was hard to disagree. The party was in a shambles, and up to 20 points behind in the polls. The comparisons to Brown’s lack of mandate, the need for a strengthened hand in the EU negotiation and the desire to finish Brexit’s implementation period before the next election made calling the election a risk worth taking.
Some of what happened in the election campaign was the Prime Ministers’s fault, but much of the blame lies with fundamental problems in CCHQ campaigning. A lot of factors were at play.
When Parliament reconvened after the election, party unity was more necessary than ever in one thrown apart by the European question. May did what she needed to: a confidence-and-supply deal with the DUP – a fair deal for a functioning government, with conditions for it to fulfil for Northern Ireland to receive extra infrastructure funding.
But the Parliamentary arithmetic was clear – her role was as a unifier now. Any agenda of her own would have to be tempered by what her whole Party would vote for.
The Phase One Deal
If one bears this in mind, her Brexit Phase One deal was a masterpiece. Just when it looked as though there would be no deal before Christmas, all sides agreed a fair one. Britain would, contingent on a trade deal, wind down her financial commitments for the equivalent of less than four years of membership – much less than what the EU originally asked for, and frameworks for citizens’ rights and Ireland were agreed. Both Boris Johnson and Anna Soubry took to Twitter to welcome the deal: if you can bring those two together while leading a minority Government, you must be doing something right.
That drama was set against a background of falling unemployment, falling borrowing, huge reading improvements among children, greater spending power for the poorest, a serious agenda to conserve our environment and an economy which has outperformed all predictions.
Britain’s major challenges
But just as one problem is dealt with, another arises: the NHS’s ‘Winter Crisis’. The health service needs a lot more money and perhaps major structural improvements too. This is not a new problem. We all knew that with an ageing population and large-scale immigration, pressures on the NHS would grow exponentially. That it’s coming to a head when one of the country’s most complicated legislative challenges (Brexit) is also underway is not the fault of a Prime Minister who first entered Number 10 in mid-2016. That it needs a long-term solution is clear, and it is, May and Jeremy Hunt’s responsibility to provide it quickly and thoroughly.
The same is true of the other big issues of the day: homelessness; the rollout of Universal Credit; housing. These issues are huge and they must all be addressed: all three should have been dealt with better by the Cameron Goverment too.
The Perceptions War
I do wonder how many of the Government’s problems are more to do with them losing the perceptions war. How many people think that the Government wants to destroy the NHS? Caused the Grenfell Tower tragedy? End animal sentience? Spend £500 million anew on blue passports? Destroy young people’s chances of going to university? Is homophobic? Anti-women? Anti-immigrant? None of these things are true and yet, to varying degrees, they are widely believed. To avoid a hard Left Government leading us all to poverty, this must be addressed too: and that’s an obligation on all Conservatives everywhere, and especially CCHQ.
May should stay
I want to finish by imploring you to consider the effect on our Brexit negotiations if we change negotiators half way through; if we re-open the wounds of the referendum with a leadership fight; if we risk letting in self-proclaimed Marxists who can’t answer basic questions about costs; if we risk having a leader who may be less beyond moral reproach than Theresa May.
And who would be better to steer us through these choppy waters than the reluctant remainer with a focus on social cohesion? Surely he Prime Minister who returned with the best Brexit Phase One deal that was realistically available. I’m not unrealistic about May. If everyone felt everything was fine, I would point out the things she got wrong. But David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, John Major and Margaret Thatcher made their blunders too.
This political situation is like walking on eggshells: May must tread carefully, but her record so far shows she can still make a success of it, as much as any other Prime Minister did in their day.