When Theresa May first unveiled her Nick Timothy-esque programme of Red Tory ideas – an industrial strategy, energy price caps, more council homes, workers on company boards, restrictions on company takeovers by foreign firms, and so on – her position was strong and Jeremy Corbyn’s was weak. Last June’s election changed all that: the Prime Minister now has no Conservative majority, and Labour could win the next election. The anti-Conservative, anti-capitalist cause has advanced during the last twelve months.
This is the context in which to view May’s Observer article yesterday on fining company executives who fail to protect their employees’ pensions. Three points flow from it, whether you agree with the proposal or not. First, she must deliver on it, and other commitments, if her credibility isn’t to wither. Politicians who make promises they don’t keep lose public trust, and we noted last spring that she had promised “anti-Philip Green powers for the pension regulator”. Now the vow is repeated some eight months on.
Second, the purpose of the article was clearly tactical. It aimed to make news, and stay ahead of the game, following the collapse of Carillion. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it leads to a third point. So much for the Prime Minister’s tactics, but what about her strategy? We know what she thinks about Carillion, but what’s her view of capitalism as a whole? The Conservative Manifesto told us that she does “not believe in untrammelled free markets”. Why, and how should they be trammelled? It also “rejected the cult of selfish individualism”. How is individualism selfish? Conservatism and capitalism are separate but linked: a party of the centre-right will in some sense be a party of capital. Where does the one rub up uncomfortably against the other, if at all? How can capitalism best be made to work for the many and not the few in an age of globalisation, mass immigration, and technological change?
We do not claim that May’s manifesto contentions were wrong. But tactics and survival are clearly not enough – given the revival of the Hard Left, the intimidation of Conservative candidates last June, the rise in anti-semitism, the threats to free speech on campus, the growth of Labour’s membership towards half a million as Tory numbers drop below three figures. Ideas have consequences. And when conservative ideas are being put and made the leader of the Conservative Party must help to put and make them.
Towards the end of David Cameron’s Government, Michael Gove made a speech about capitalism’s future. He was embroiled in his work as Chief Whip, but none the less found time to deliver it. It would not be unfair to say that he spoke about what May would call “the good that government can do” – urging the Tories to become “warriors for the dispossessed”. The Prime Minister is even busier than her Chief Whip, but she has a larger team at her disposal than he does. Why should she not deliver a series of speeches, over the next year, to set out why, in her view, the social market, as Keith Joseph put it, works better than the socialist state? You may say that the Prime Minister is a less vivid communicator of ideas than her Environment Secretary. Perhaps. But she has an advantage over him. Her office wins her even more coverage.
Obviously, May needs to act as well as speak: she leads the Government, after all. Readers will not have missed the recent spate of complaints that she does not. Boris Johnson wants more money for the NHS. Gavin Williamson is pressing for more for defence. There is no decision on how closely our economy should be aligned with the EU’s post-Brexit. The bungled reshuffle has weaked the Prime Minister’s position. Gove has reportedly claimed in Cabinet that the civil service now runs the Government.
“I’ve just had it,” Nick Boles was quoted as saying yesterday: “There’s a wonderful George Orwell essay about Englishness. He talks about the boiled rabbits of the left. We have a government full of boiled rabbits. She needs to give her ministers their head and she needs to tell them to be brave.” Where are the backbench loyalists, the Whips’ narks, queueing up to denounce this dissident? The silence is striking and significant. Downing Street would answer that it has its hands full with Brexit, and that the Government does much that doesn’t get reported. So on homes, for example, Ministers might argue that they have now got in place the planning framework they want, with a requirement on local authorities to deliver robust numbers for housing need. Better to let the latest spate of changes work their way through than rush out new initiatives just to win headlines.
None the less, there’s much that the Government could do without proposing new laws that Parliament would vote down. On the NHS and social care, it could set up a Royal Commission, or back Sarah Wollaston’s proposal for an all-party, or establish an Affordability Commission. On schools, it could lift the cap requirement on new faith schools – this providing more good places for pupils of all faiths, as Jacob Rees-Mogg has argued on this site. On skills, it could advance Boles’ plan for new two year technical diplomas.
On housing, it could free up more state-owned land – perhaps by transferring ownership from departments to a new commission. On ownership, it could have a look at Michael Fallon’s ideas, including tax breaks for companies that offer free shares to employees. Chris Skidmore’s appointment at CCHQ also gives the Prime Minister an opportunity to review policy-making more widely. If it is to mean anything, he must be able to do what the Downing Street Policy Unit doesn’t, and look more at the long-term than the short. There is no shortage of energetic MPs around to help him, particularly from the 2015 and 2017 intakes. George Freeman wants a fully-fledged Policy Commission, taking ideas from the third sector and other groups in civil society. If the resources and backing can be found – always more easily said than done – there could be a modernised Swinton College.
It’s easier to propose than dispose, and May’s position is very difficult. One MP complained recently to ConHome that she simply stonewalls in meetings. To which another replied that he didn’t blame her for that: conversations leak; Ministers brief. Immobility might be the best means of survival. But it will do nothing for Conservative prospects in 2022, or sooner, with Corbyn and Momentum knocking on the door.