Alex Morton was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
The surprise was a victory for Team May
Theresa May has already won one victory before a single vote has been cast. She announced a general election that stunned the entire political class. This decision has risks – but, as I argued on this site last November, an early election was always going to be less risky than the alternative of trying to govern with no Lords mandate, a tiny majority in the Commons, a large deficit, a manifesto from 2015 with which she agrees with only in part, and an economy potentially due a slowdown.
Her ability to keep her cards close to her chest, to not feel the need to boast over dinner about her clever plans to journalists has yet again given her an edge. She is aided by the decline of the print media but as a strategy it works in a way not yet grasped – she commands the stage by making people have to listen to her rather than constant briefing out.
I suspect she is honest when she said she decided to call the election recently, though I also think that she and her closest team had never quite ruled it out in their minds. There has been a gap between what the Prime Minister promises (a radical transformation of society in response to a Brexit vote she interprets as a call for fundamental change) and her policies so far. For her politics is not a game but a chance to do what she believes is right. As it became clearer and clearer that she could not deliver the radical change that she supports, May will have moved toward calling an election.
A Mayite Manifesto – de Gaulle crosses the channel?
Now that the election has been called, the most important document in British politics is going to be the Conservative 2017 Manifesto, particularly given the Salisbury convention that the Lords do not block manifesto commitments. Those elements of the Cameron era focused on security in the widest sense are most likely to be retained – she is likely to maintain the pledge on immigration numbers for instance.
But in general, the 2017 manifesto is likely to be a very different beast to the 2015 manifesto. It is likely to be more corporatist and dirigiste. Those on the Tory right who dream of a new and radical UK outside the EU unfettered by bureaucracy and regulation of any kind are likely to be deeply disappointed. It is on this rather than immigration I suspect May wants to boost her majority to give her the Brexit she wants. It is entirely possible that some of the measures that business is nervous about but Philip Hammond has blocked (e.g. on corporate governance) are going to be back on the agenda.
The vision that May outlined in her 2016 Party onference speech might not be to everyone’s taste but it was fairly coherent. Her belief in the good that Government can do is likely to lead to a more interventionist state – with an industrial strategy and price cap in energy markets for example. The Prime Minister believes in a strong, patriotic but interventionist nation state both in foreign and domestic affairs. In this, she is quite unique in terms of UK political post-war history – the nearest you can find is either the earlier Joseph Chamberlain (her guru Nick Timothy’s personal hero) or, across the channel, Charles de Gaulle.
Will May focus on growth and public sector reform?
Rather than ignore what May has already said, the more interesting question is about those areas we do not know her view on. It is here she may part company with the de Gaullist approach – or she may double down on that philosophy. What will a May Government look like in terms of economic growth and public sector reform? It is often forgotten that for all her praise of the state, the Prime Minister and her team oversaw over a 24 per cent reduction in Home Office spending while maintaining crime on its downward trajectory. Will she seek such reductions in spending and public sector efficiencies more broadly or will she see state intervention as sufficient to boost growth and so allow her to grow out of the current fiscal position?
Will May try to marry the Tory belief in aspiration to a greater focus on security or is she really just a statist with a socially conservative streak? I think the former – but the manifesto will have to nail May’s colours to the mast. She is going to have to very quickly define her economic agenda outside of some of the issues around fairness that she has talked about before. It is entirely possible that May believes that the economy grows under all circumstances – that she does not need policies outside of her interventionist agenda.
In reality, she will need to be bold if she is to govern successfully – the deficit remains high, and while the UK is growing faster than most developed countries, real wages are yet again stagnating. The current economic model of high levels of debt, low interest rates, and ever greater Government spending and activity is clearly failing. May rightly criticises the existing system – but often the problem is an overactive not laissez-faire government. France shows the pitfalls of relying on the Gaullist model alone.
The Prime Minister has spoken out against the current model in terms of the ever lower interest rates favoured by the Bank of England and the distortions that this has created (not least falling home ownership despite most voters’ aspiration to own) – will this make it into the manifesto? Does she believe – as most Conservatives do – that lower taxes for ordinary working people are an example of social justice in action, or does an active state mean a more expensive one as well? She will need to set out her stall and this will be revealing.
People have focused on the theatre of politics but the substance is the most interesting element. With May extremely likely to still be Prime Minister in two months and every chance of a landslide victory, we will find out what the next five years under a May Government will mean besides Brexit when the Conservative Manifesto is published in the next few weeks.