Alex Morton was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.

May has promised that government will be a force for good

Despite the difficulties of the campaign, Theresa May is likely to win a solid and increased majority next week, helping her to pursue Brexit, and shoring up her political support. The real challenge comes afterwards. The Conservative manifesto repeated and put front and centre the line from her speech to the Tory conference last October that “government can and should be a force for good – and its power should be put squarely at the service of this country’s working people”.

The Prime Minister is inviting us to judge her Government on whether or not government itself is seen as being more of a force for good in ordinary people’s lives. She will not win – or even reach – 2022 without making good on it. All Conservatives agree that government, where necessary, should be effective and streamlined. Almost all of us who grapple with government, from the tax system to public services, know this is not the case. The system is creaking and overloaded, gummed up and insufficiently focused on those who use it. By promising that government will be a force for good, May must grasp the nettle of government reform.

May needs the right levers, and to avoid pointless or counter-productive activity

The idea of an edict or philosophy falling from a Prime Minister’s lips to then transform the world is simply nonsense. In truth, the people out there in the real world who run systems, whether private or public, continue to do as they please, except if legally and financially constrained by change. Government thus has a limited set of tools to shift behaviour:

  • Clear legal changes which sufficiently shift the balance of power and crucially, where those involved are prepared to enforce these rules (if necessary through the courts).
  • Clear and explicit changes to funding streams that change the power structures and incentives.
  • Changing the people who run the system to those sympathetic to your views.
    Removing barriers or rules (including private sector rules) that stop competition or new entrants and so stop markets working effectively, or which allow bureaucracies to impose their views on on others.
  • Deals that are enforceable between central Government and others
  • The huge number of speeches, initiatives, guidance changes, rule tweaks, gimmicks and so on and make up a vast amount, probably even the majority, of central government activity, are largely irrelevant. Often this activity merely gets in the way.

Take two examples. The first – and successful – intervention was on brownfield development where many office and retail buildings have converted to new homes. The Government allowed that outside key locations people could, subject to a limited number of tests (e.g. design and infrastructure), switch office and retail buildings to residential. This annoyed some councils, but conversions from other uses to homes created over 30,000 new homes in 2015/6.

A second – but unsuccessful – example is health and social care integration. This started in 1999 with the creation of (voluntary) ‘pooled budgets’. Nearly two decades on, it has only really got going in the last few years – and even then, far too slowly. On the OECD’s new definition of health and social care, we spend a colossal £180 billion each year. The more we integrate, the less the system costs and the better the care our elderly will receive (and the less painful any social care charges will be).

Now consider something as simple and seemingly as uncontroversial as May’s manifesto pledge: “We will build better houses, to match the quality of those we have inherited from previous generations”. If she succeeds, she will massively help reduce NIMBYISM by forcing shoddy development to up its game. I can think immediately of a dozen enemies who will seek to delay and smother, block and defeat this. She will also have to do this in a way that is both pragmatic enough to work, and tough enough to succeed.

Theresa May needs Cabinet champions – not centralisation

The Prime Minister needs to accept she is often battling establishment orthodoxy and plan accordingly. Team May worry that the machinery of government is often hostile to their thinking, and indifferent to the ‘just about managing’ group. They think that evidence is manufactured or shaped to fit in with existing orthodoxy and the views of what David Goodhart terms the ‘Anywhere’ class – affluent and mobile high earners with political views based on individual rights rather than mutual obligations, and who oppose everything from education reform to Brexit.

Team May are often right about these biases. But centralising every single decision in the hands of a tiny group is not a viable long-term strategy, but a recipe for total (nervous) breakdown. May needs to build a friendly internal and external ecosystem to battle the soft left viewpoints that run through the stakeholder and quango bodies and often the civil service itself – without falling prey to paranoia: there are, after all, many good officials in the system and challenge is a necessary part of the civil service role.

She needs to use her victory to expand her team – making use of all those on the backbenches and junior rungs of government who have the talent to drive change. She needs to challenge her Cabinet to set out how they will achieve goals she agrees with them and then give them freedom to act. If they cannot agree goals she should replace them with those who do. She needs to get a grip of the civil service, and put Cabinet Ministers in place who will do likewise – and back them in their battles with the system.

Without clear Cabinet champions and the creation of such an ecosystem, she will continue to have to choose between what will become failed centralisation – and climb-down. In the Whitehall village, without direction from Ministers, the views of the commentariat and establishment will simply stifle and smother her approach and voters will lose faith in her and her Government. This will be lethal for her premiership.

The Prime Minister has said that government is a force for good. This means good Government will be critical. May’s aims are right – but she needs Cabinet Champions and civil service grip. In terms of being a successful occupant of Number Ten, whether or not she gets this right after June 8th is more important than the exact size of the majority next week.

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