9 June 2017

May can’t go back to government as usual


This morning, Theresa May walked back into Downing Street after delivering a speech from a parallel universe. One in which she had just won a solid majority, where she could happily knuckle down to the task – “over the next five years” – of delivering Brexit and containing extremism.

Until now, I thought that David Cameron’s response to the Scottish independence referendum – the one where he immediately called for a fair deal for the rest of the UK too, instantly crystallising the resentment of the losing Nats – was the most tone-deaf speech from the prime ministerial lectern. But now we have a new winner. There was no hint of humility. No remorse. No acknowledgement that the voters had just told her, in no uncertain terms, that they weren’t buying what she was selling.

Still, even if Mrs May wants to get back to government as usual, she will find it an impossible task. She has a Chancellor that everyone knows she wanted to fire. A Foreign Secretary who wants her job, and will probably get it. A Cabinet who are virtually unanimous in their distaste for her two key aides. A set of partners in the Democratic Unionist Party who have their own priorities and their own demands – not to mention a rather unsavoury backstory.

Given Mrs May doesn’t actually have a majority, it will also be impossible to do some other things. These include – as Iain Martin, CapX’s founding editor, points out – bringing back grammar schools. And fixing social care. And building a third runway at Heathrow. Do anything, indeed, that is in any way contentious. Closing the deficit. Addressing the problems within the NHS. Bringing back devolved government in Northern Ireland (something the DUP are bound to have their say on).

At the top of this lengthy list, of course, are the Brexit negotiations. In theory, these can proceed independently of the government: David Davis (assuming he’s still in the job) will go off and talk to Michel Barnier, and the two of them can thrash things out.

But that, of course, isn’t what will happen. Parliament will have to vote on all manner of Brexit-related matters. And the line being used by all parties – apart from the Conservatives – is that the voters have refused May a mandate for “hard Brexit” (or “hard, cruel, Tory Brexit”, to give its full and proper name).

If she survives (and it is still an “if”), will she really be able to plough on with leaving the single market, and the customs union, without facing full-scale rebellion in the Commons? She could, narrowly, argue that such pledges are in the Tory manifesto – and that Labour are also theoretically committed to ending freedom of movement. But I’m not sure many MPs, or Lords, will respect that constitutional nicety when her minority is quite so small.

Then there is the timing issue. Brexit was already on a tight schedule: talks start in 10 days, and must be completed and ratified by March 2019 (there is little appetite in Europe for an extension). And any bespoke deal, of the kind that May wants (or perhaps wanted), will inevitably be hideously complicated to negotiate.

This ties in to a wider point. The most sensible thing for Mrs May to do – and I’m speaking purely politically here, rather than in terms of what would make for the best possible Brexit – would be to retreat to one of the off-the-shelf models. EFTA membership, perhaps, or some sort of Norwegian or Swiss approach: something that can be negotiated easily, and is acceptable to a broad enough swathe of public opinion to get through. This kind of deal will doubtless be pushed for by the DUP, which like everyone else in Northern (and Southern) Ireland is extremely keen to keep the borders open.

The problem is that May’s manifesto explicitly commits her to the opposite course. As it commits her to a whole host of neo-Butskellite policies designed, in large part, to define herself against the free-market wing of her party – many of whom will now take great delight in consigning said policies to the dustbin.

In such circumstances, a logical thing to do would be to look for areas of common ground with other parties. But these election results make that – and here’s that word again – impossible.

The problem is that Jeremy Corbyn is now not just in control of the Labour Party, but in command of it. And those of us on the centre-Right have to acknowledge: for all that we dislike him and his ideas, they are clearly (and lamentably) popular with a large swathe of the voting public. Just as a narrow, defensive, glumbucket Conservatism which only gives people things to vote against, rather than vote for, is unpopular.

So there is precious little possible common ground between the two sides. What could Corbyn and May agree on, in policy terms? The only examples I can think of involve interfering more and spending more – new infrastructure projects, perhaps, or minor initiatives to do with skills and education. But on issues such as the NHS and social care, and of course the economy, their basic assumptions and doctrines are so far apart for the gap to be unbridgeable.

The only consolation for May, as she surveys this ruined landscape, is that she has accomplished at least one of her core objectives – to prevent a second independence referendum. Though even that stems more from the charisma of Ruth Davidson, towards whom many Tories in Westminster are sending increasingly wistful glances.

The long and the short of it is that, even though May appears to have cobbled together some kind of government in surprisingly and commendably short order, she will soon find herself in an impossibly tricky position. As, indeed, will Britain.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX