11 July 2017

It’s too late for a reboot, Theresa


Today Theresa May gave a speech at an event launching a report by Matthew Taylor on modern working practices. It was briefed as a grand re-launch of her premiership, even including some kind of plan to appeal for a cross-party alliance with Labour.

In the end, her rather brief speech was focused mainly on the specifics of Taylor’s wonkish report. She did at one point suggest that, given the situation in the House of Commons, it would be constructive if Labour looked at the details of proposals such as those Taylor was making in his report and thing about how to contribute pragmatically to practical progress in policy-making rather than simply opposing for opposition’s sake.

This did not seem to me to constitute a relaunch, let alone the appeal for a cross-part alliance that many Conservatives were condemning last night. Perhaps she was put off in some way, perhaps the event was mis-briefed, or perhaps it was hype to get attention for Taylor’s event? Whatever the answer, reinvention of her premiership it was not.

And maybe that’s just as well, for her premiership does not need any reinventing and it’s difficult to imagine what form such reinvention could take or what purpose there would be in it.

When Theresa May became Prime Minister a year ago, suffice it to say I was not a fan. She had seemed to me to represent the worst of the “modernisers”: author of the “nasty party” tag, overly authoritarian, cautious and negative, unimaginative and lacking in strategic vision, without useful instinct or empathy, given to picking fights unnecessarily. I felt she had failed in every frontbench role she had held in a manner too dull to remember. I feared and predicted that her support for Remain during the referendum meant she would over-compensate, being too negative on immigration and hamstrung from offering the required friendly public signals to our dear EU friends and allies.

I was “Anyone but May”. But she won. My best hope then was that she might prove the Devon Malcolm if politics – coming into her own on the top pitches.

Early signs were not good. Her front-bench purge was excessive. She refused (shamefully) to offer any unilateral guarantee to EU citizens. She did not call the immediate General Election I thought necessary. The Conservative Conference included appalling signals about lists of EU workers. There was no speech saying how wonderful the EU was. Her “I get it” signals to Leave voters were initially about immigration. And she allowed her ministers foolishly to declare that we could not begin to negotiate post-EU trade deals until Brexit – eventually meaning we turned down Donald Trump’s offer of a 2017 trade deal. There was no debate as to Britain’s role in the world in the future.

At least, however, she avoided getting entangled in domestic distractions. Early daft talk of “meritocracy” faded. Philip Hammond emphasised the need for flexibility on deficit management. And gradually her concept of the Brexit process itself emerged. It was a good one.

A free trade agreement with the EU implemented over some bridging period was the only realistic way to go if we were to recover sovereignty over immigration and trade policy. The European Parliament suggested three years or so. A meeting of minds.

Article 50 was triggered on schedule despite the destructive and counter-productive efforts of Continuity Remainers. All seemed set fair. She even called the General Election – albeit ten months late. I thought she did okay during the campaign. Though many if her longstanding weaknesses were exposed (lack of strategic insight, instinct or empathy and inability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances), they were hardly news. The result was much less a failure for her (she got 42.4 percent of the vote – the same as Thatcher in 1983) and much more an incomprehensible triumph for the Far Left.

She obviously cannot fight another General Election and it remains to be seen how long she might last. I don’t buy the argument that she ought to go quickly, given the paucity of credible alternatives. But equally I see no purpose in her attempting to reinvent herself.

Her role is to sit there in office, keeping the process of government going from one day to the next, allowing the Brexit negotiations to proceed and denying Jeremy Corbyn the General Election he seeks.

There are those who tell me that Corbyn is bound to win eventually, so we should get it over with now while there would still be resistance to his implementing the more radical elements of his agenda. They say that if things carry on for five years, then, as happened in 1979, the public will be so disillusioned in the way things are that they will be ready to embrace revolutionary change.

I don’t agree. And I reject the case that if Corbyn is inevitable it would be better to embrace the darkness sooner. Every day May can hang on in office is another day of continuation of our lovely, peaceful, prosperous society. Another day businesses can sell their products and dream up new ones. Another day people can enjoy their private property and trade freely. Another day Britain’s armed forces and diplomacy can stand against wicked people internationally. Another day the economy can grow. Another day children learn in well-functioning schools. Another day everything can work in peace and order. Delaying the inevitable is not a bad thing. Rather, it is that thing we call “life”.

Maybe May must go in order for a Brexit deal to be done with the EU. Maybe she should be replaced after we leave the EU. Maybe she should hang on for four more years and give someone else a year’s run before a 2022 General Election. Maybe I’m wrong and Brexit itself will (as the EU referendum did) transform politics so much that May’s reputation will be restored and she can indeed fight again.

All those are bridges to cross when we get to them. For now, she should not be relaunching. She should just be keeping things going, one gripping-by-the-fingernails day at a time.

Andrew Lilico is an economist and political writer