The ten most recent subjects covered by the Conservative Party’s Twitter feed are as follows: record employment, the provision of free sanitary products in primary schools, Conservative councils recycling more than Labour ones, more statistics about work and wages, record women’s employment, workers’ rights, an exports increase, more disabled people in employment, an end to no fault evictions, Conservative councils fixing more potholes than Labour ones, banning upskirting, funding more toilets at motorway service areas to help people living with complex disabilities, Sajid Javid criticising Diane Abbott over Julian Assange, kicking out racism in football, and a new law to protect service animals.
One might pick out three main themes, local election campaigning aside.
The first is the vibrancy of Britain’s jobs market and the country’s robust recent record on employment. The aftermath of the Crash and the Coalition’s slowing of public spending growth, a.k.aa “austerity”, didn’t bring the five million unemployed that David Blanchflower believed possible. The Government has to keep shouting about our employment rates because people have got used to them. A generation is growing up that cannot remember the mass unemployment of the 1980s.
Then there are a battery of announcements aimed disproportionately at younger women voters, who were more likely to switch to Labour at the last election. Those of a certain disposition will argue that some of these are trivial, and that women and men both want government to get on with addressing big issues: Brexit, health, the economy, immigration, education and so on. But part of the point of banning upskirting, say, or providing more free sanitary products is gaining “permission to be heard”, in order to make some voters, in this case younger female ones, more receptive to what Conservatives are doing more broadly and widely.
Which takes us, third, to law-making – not admitttedly the only means, or even necessarily the main one, by which government can act, but indispensable none the less. Under which category we find a new law to protect service animals and the proposed end to no fault evictions, about which James Brokenshire wrote on this site recently. The two may seem to have nothing in common but, on closer inspection, tell part of the same story.
Namely that, as Sam Coates keeps pointing out, the Government can’t get any plan which is remotely contentious through the Commons. Only the most uncontested ideas, such as providing police and other service dogs with more protections, can make it through the House. And this new service animals measure isn’t even Government leglislation. It came about through a Private Members Bill tabled by Oliver Heald and then backed by Ministers.
Meanwhile, the proposal to end no fault evictions isn’t contained in a Bill at all. The headline on gov.uk about the plan refers to an “end to unfair evictions” and “the biggest change to the private rental sector for a generation”. But the text of the announcement refers to “plans to consult on new legislation” and refers to an earlier consultation, on Overcoming the barriers to longer tenancies in the private rented sector, to which it has now published a response.
As with housing, so with divorce. On ConservativeHome today, Frank Young makes the point, in his article on the Government’s plans to ensure that no fault divorce can take place more frequently, that “it remains to be seen if the Justice Department’s enthusiasm for new legislation will be matched by government business managers and the ability of the current government to get any legislation through”. For David Gauke has unfurled not a new Bill, but a White Paper.
Ditto Liz Truss’s announcment on a £95,000 cap on exit payments when public sector workers leave their jobs. “Six-figure taxpayer-funded public sector exit payments to end,” gov.uk’s headline declares. The sub-heading is more candid than the one beneath the housing headline. “A consultation has been launched outlining how the government will introduce a £95,000 cap to stop huge exit payments when public sector workers leave their jobs,” it says. The Treasury confirms that legislation will be required.
Now think on. As Sam goes on to say, Theresa May’s successor may take against these ideas or indeed all of them. In which case, they will doubtless be quietly put to sleep. And that successor may be in place soon. (Regretfully, we have to add: as soon as possible after European Parliament elections, assuming these happen, please.)
Conservative MPs don’t want a general election. Nor do we. But the more one ponders the state of this Parliament, the more one sees why one is the natural solution to this impasse – and would be knocking on the door, were it not for the Fixed Terms Parliament Act. These recent announcements are Potemkin Legislation. They cannot be put to the Commons without risk of them being amended out of their original intention.
Nor can the Government legislate easily elsewhere. Consider any proposals affecting women – to take us back to near where we started. Up would pop Stella Creasy, looking for a means of changing the abortion laws in Northern Ireland. Which would further strain the Conservatives’ relationship with the DUP, such as it is. Prepare, when Brexit isn’t before the Commons, for many more Opposition Days.