7 May 2019

The next Prime Minister can turn things around. Here’s how

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At some point soon, Theresa May is going to go. The next leader of the Conservative party will then be asked to form a government, and in doing so will face an unenviable challenge.

With no working majority in the House of Commons, and under pressure to hold an early General Election, whoever follows Mrs May will have a very narrow window of opportunity to restore purpose to the government, the country and indeed their party.

Theresa May has managed to not only betray the referendum result. Pretty much everything she has touched in public policy terms has turned to disaster.

What ought to be a moment of national renewal, she has turn into a humiliation.

As Home Secretary, it was her great initiative to water-down police stop and search powers. Knife crime rocketed as a result – as many of us predicted would happen at the time. Having appointed a succession of mediocrities, May has ensured that real decision-making in her rudderless administration has defaulted to unelected officials. Thus on everything from policy on home ownership to Huawei, Whitehall group-think has been allowed to trump common sense. Reforms in education, pushed through with painstaking determination by Michael Gove when he was education minister, have been quietly reversed by “the blob”.

Any day now there will be a Tory leadership contest to see who takes over from here. Will it be Boris or Jeremy Hunt? Dom Raab or Penny Mordant?

I have no idea – and, not being a member of the Conservative party, I won’t have a vote. But I do have a list of suggestions for Mrs May successor.

Here are several things that if a new leader did right away might just lift the government and the country out of Mrs May’s mess – and in doing so, could even restore the fortunes of the Conservative party.

Sack certain top civil servants. Unless the new Prime Minister establishes mastery over the Whitehall machine on day one, the Whitehall machine will master them. Taking control is probably best done using Orders in Council signed by the Queen on being invited to form a government to ensure the right people at the top of the Cabinet Office, Treasury and elsewhere.

Prepare to leave the EU without a deal. The next Prime Minister should put great effort into getting a time limit to the Irish backstop. They are not likely to get one because the entire Withdrawal Agreement is built around the backstop as a device to keep us in the Customs Union. However, once that becomes apparent, a no-deal departure becomes inevitable. “But what about Parliament?” I hear you say. “Haven’t they just ruled out a no deal departure?”. Unless the House of Commons somehow decides the negotiating stance of French President Macron and all the others, our MPs are in no position to ensure any extension beyond October. Parliamentary motions have been a pretext for Mrs May’s extensions. They do not necessitate another.

Strike trade deals with America and Australia. Trade deals, we are told, take years. Actually, that’s only true if the type of trade deal envisaged is all about imposing uniform rules and standards. The next Prime Minister could cut a deal with the US or Australia based on the mutual recognition of one another’s standards very swiftly. If its legal to buy and sell something in Connecticut or Canberra, it ought to be – with a few caveats – available in Clacton, and vica versa.

Open up the economy. We might be in a political funk, but the UK economy has actually performed surprisingly well in recent years. Output and employment are up. Exports, especially to growth markets in Asia and elsewhere, are soaring. But we should not be complacent. Crony capitalism means that there are too many vested interests who have rigged the economy to their advantage – and the public knows it. The next Prime Minister needs to set out a programme for radical change.

This means ending state subsidies to banks, and preventing corporate interests from having too much influence over public policy. Many restrictive practices, often introduced at an EU level under the auspices of the Single Market, have inhibited growth and innovation. From regulation of clinical trials to financial services, a lot of the small print needs rewriting – and many of the regulators need being made meaningfully accountable once they no longer take instruction from Brussels.

Remove planning restrictions. Taking on vested interests means doing something about our Soviet system of planning. Of course there are some parts of the country where its right that people need permission. But planning restrictions should be removed in certain areas, and people who own plots of land given a legal right to self-build. Planning rules mean that the wrong type of housing is being put up in the wrong places. This needs to change.

Airports and infrastructure: Not having enough capacity at our airports doesn’t just mean long queues. It means that there are not enough flight slots to connect our country to other parts of the world – so those flights depart instead from Amsterdam and elsewhere. If we want to be an independent country, we need to take decisions today to ensure that we prosper in 10, 20 or 30 years time.

Call an election. Imagine if a new Prime Minister took office over the summer, and Britain departed the EU at the end of October. What if the new government gave a clear commitment to delivering an open economy and tackling crony corporatism? Ponder what might then happen in the spring on 2020 if they then called an election?

Any one taking over from Mrs May will lack a working Commons majority. But the best way to get one would be to call an election that forces their opponents to make unpalatable choices; to their internal party opponents, determined to thwart Brexit, the next Tory leader should make it a clear choice between standing as a Conservative candidate, or joining Heidi Allen’s new party. (How’s that working out, by the way?) To the Labour party, the new Prime Minister should force them to choose between accepting the reality of the UK departure from the EU, or promising to try to take us back in.

My hunch is that we will know if the new Tory leader is capable of delivering on any of this by the end of their first week in office. If the news channels are dominated by outraged pundits complaining about sacked civil servants, May’s successor might just be in with a chance.

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Douglas Carswell is a former MP and the author of 'Rebel'.