31 May 2019

A harmless prime minister

By

The worst Prime Minister since Anthony Eden? The worst Prime Minister since Lord North?

Journalists providing Theresa May with their “first draft of history” verdict have not been kind. Private Eye this week features a front cover with the words “the Prime Minister’s Legacy in full” – followed by a blank page. The critics came not just from the “Tory right” and rival political parties but also from Conservative pundits who like to position themselves as “moderates” or “modernisers”.

For instance, Clare Foges wrote in The Times:

“The Conservative Party pleases no one when it desperately tries to ape the left and obsesses over identity politics. This was the problem with May’s administration. In ham-fisted attempts to look right on, the government went down some alleys that the sane majority thought were barmy or harmful, from the announcement that a man could simply declare himself to be a woman, to the racial disparity audit, which used context-free data to paint the country as profoundly racist. These are not the sort of things a Tory government should be doing.”

Certainly, the resignation speech from May on the steps of Downing Street was pretty thin gruel. We did indeed have a reference to the Race Disparity Audit. There was also “gender pay reporting”, the “Modern Industrial Strategy” and setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” — as if any Prime Minister would have done otherwise given the number of deaths.

David Cameron can point to a bolder programme of reforms being delivered. True, he was there for longer but during most of his time there was the constraint of being in coalition with the Lib Dems. Stasis might have been expected — beyond the imperative from the global financial markets to restore some control of the public finances. But the Cameron era saw much more than that — reforms to education and welfare usually topping most lists.

So why did May not achieve more? She is certainly not lazy. Her seriousness in being on top of the all the paperwork is positively Thatcheresque. On the contrary, May’s workaholic nature was part of the difficulty, the thoroughness led to caution about taking decisions. Ministers of all ideological hues would complain about any initiative needing to be sent for Downing Street for
approval. Then the proposals would just be stuck there. Not rejected, not approved, not amended. Just stuck.

For Cameron, I suspect the “chillaxing” stories were overdone. Of course, he worked longhours. But he also was willing to delegate. Perhaps too much sometimes — for instance on Andrew Lansley’s health reforms. But it did mean that more ended up being achieved.

Anyway, the labour theory of value really doesn’t measure up with national leaders any more than with the rest of us. Ronald Reagan like to chuckle about how he enjoyed afternoon naps and watching old movies. There was some self-deprecation in this but also an element of truth. Yet he still won the Cold War.

May has a couple of obvious alibis for inaction. One is that Brexit has absorbed everyone’s attention and so sucked the life out anything else. Up to a point, perhaps. Yet I doubt May would be temperamentally suited to radicalism even if Brexit had not been on the agenda.

Another would be the lack of a Parliamentary majority. However for eight months in 1974, there was a minority Labour Government under Harold Wilson which extended trade union immunities, brought in the Health and Safety Act, the Rent Act which greatly increased rent controls, and introduced important measures on food subsidies and price controls.

With May its not that she had a bold domestic reform programme that was voted down by Parliament. It simply wasn’t put forward.

Yet it is quite unreasonable to contend that because May hasn’t done much that makes her a leading contender for the worst Prime Minister. The delay over Brexit is damaging, not least to public trust, but how significant will that damage prove to be in historical terms?

If we leave with “no deal” on October 31st falling back on WTO terms will that be much worse than if we had done so on March 29th? Some who are nervous about the prospect might feel that at least it allows for more contingency planning. Less likely would be that some version of her Withdrawal Agreement is accepted, which would give her a wry smile and a feeling that all that work wasn’t wasted after all. Or if Brexit is abandoned (also unlikely) her supporters could murmur that it shows it wasn’t so easy after all.

Compare that to some — perhaps most — of her predecessors. Gordon Brown’s huge spending and borrowing splurge proved hugely imprudent when the banking crash came. Tony Blair took us to war with Iraq. Ted Heath took us into the EEC. Harold Wilson, as noted above, along with Jim Callaghan brought in big changes — which resulted in us being the “sick man of Europe”.

Clement Attlee’s Government was full of important decisions including a huge nationalisation programme. It doesn’t mean they were good decisions. By contrast, the uncharismatic Mrs May emerges as a relatively benign occupant of Downing Street.

Simply allowing Cameron’s reforms to run their course has been a benefit. Despite the criticisms Universal Credit has continued to be rolled out and that has contributed to a reduction in unemployment. There are more free schools and academies. Failing schools have continued to be taken over. As a result, education standards have improved. Boring budgets from Philip Hammond have seen public borrowing gradually decline. The standard of living has increased. Progress has been made in an array of measures from health care to the environment.

First, do no harm is the Hippocratic Oath that doctors must take. There are worse approaches for Prime Ministers to follow. Theresa May is among the most risk averse and non-ideological occupants to have ever held that office. That has made her premiership an exasperating period for political observers. But how much real harm has all the vacillation done when set again the outcomes for some of her decisive predecessors? The UK is a better country than it was when she took charge on July 11, 2016. That is not a bad test for her to have passed.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.