The end of Theresa May’s “phoney honeymoon” and her real period of definition.
Since her victory, Theresa May has effectively enjoyed a phoney honeymoon period. With her leadership coinciding with the summer break – and internal warfare in the Labour Party and UKIP – she has barely been tested.
The lack of scrutiny also reflects the fact that May has said little about the biggest challenges facing the country. After a hugely encouraging first speech outside Downing Street in which she championed those “just about managing” – followed up by comments on a national industrial strategy – she has kept her cards close to her chest.
May’s relative quiet compares favourably to Cameron’s incessant commentary, but it’s not without cost. Her lack of public comment on major issues like Brexit, Hinkley Point and now grammar schools have left intellectual and political gaps that others have filled – but apparently not always to her liking (as David Davis and Liam Fox have found).
The role of the Prime Minister is not purely to focus on “delivery” through competent management. The Prime Minister has to set direction through clear communications. The scale of the challenges facing the country is so vast that May needs to set out her vision and expectations so that Cabinet colleagues, departments and the wider, informal machinery of Government act decisively. That needs to start now.
While every Communications Director’s dream is to run campaigns where key policies tie into one great theme, that’s not possible this time. May’s team have the political nightmare of delivering Brexit, while trying not to let it take over everything. There will therefore need to be two communications strategies running in parallel: on Brexit; and everything else.
A wider Brexit communications strategy is needed but first May urgently needs to give a speech setting out her ultimate vision for Britain outside the EU – as the issue is running away from her. Both Davis and Fox crossed some sort of line by hinting we might be better off outside the single market, but we don’t know what that line is. Furthermore, those that helped deliver victory for the leave campaign are becoming impatient. Slapping down Ministers and the holding the odd bilateral meeting with friendly powers won’t work. A proper vision is needed soon.
The “everything else” is relatively more straightforward. Theresa May has already framed her social and economic policy neatly through the prism of the challenges facing ordinary people. This sounds like a small thing but it’ll significantly change and improve the way domestic policy is constructed and presented. It seems likely she will continue with this theme, as she should.
But in continuing to define her domestic policy in this way, she must find a way of ensuring that her message is heard through two potential public rows: on grammar schools; and on the doctors strike. Here, one off speeches aren’t useful. Rather, she will need to come up with a narrative that positions herself and the Government on the side of ordinary people against those that are too out of touch to care. That must run through every interview, article, blog, tweet and leaked document.
If she can achieve these by November, she’ll be flying.