January 10, 2017

Fluff won’t deliver the PM’s legacy

Fluff won’t deliver the PM’s legacy

To create a broader domestic legacy, the Prime Minister must avoid straying into gentle, unobjectionable waffle about social justice, says William Walter.

Last week was the Prime Minister’s toughest since taking office. Tuesday saw the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, Britain’s ambassador to the EU, and with it his scathing assessment of the Government’s Brexit strategy (or apparent lack of it). Then, on Friday, The Economist landed a second blow with its editorial and front-page headline: ‘Theresa Maybe: Britain’s indecisive premier’, in which she was criticised for her indecision, lack of strategy, and poor leadership.

Desperate to regain the initiative, Downing Street swung into action. The Sunday Telegraph carried an opinion editorial in which the Prime Minister set out her vision for social reform, which was fleshed out further in yesterday’s papers. Branded the ‘Shared Society’ (sound familiar?), she promises to address many of the injustices working class people experience daily. Core challenges singled out are the low life expectancy for those born into poverty, the tougher treatment black people experience in the criminal justice system, the number of white-working class boys left behind in our education system, and lastly the social stigma and lack of funding for mental illness in the UK. But more broadly she pledges to move beyond the narrow focus of social justice and instead embark on a fundamental programme of social reform, addressing social mobility, inequality, cost of living and the country’s housing crisis.

Though well meaning, the programme is not without its challenges. First, while it is clear on its objectives, it is less clear on how to achieve them (a characteristic it inherits from its now defunct predecessor the ‘Big Society’). And like its predecessor, it seems to suffer from the same contradiction: the use of the heavy hand of government to embark on a programme of state-sponsored social reengineering to reduce over dependence on the state. One big hand to fight the same big hand. Better, surely, to first roll back the state, so that communities, private and third sector organisations can be given the opportunity step up to the plate?

Another problem is the perceived difficulties the Government has pledged to address. For all the talk among politicians and social commentators of spiralling levels of income inequality, the data doesn’t stack up. ONS figures show income inequality is lower now than it was back in 1990. What has changed since 1990 though are the public’s perceived levels of income inequality. Stirred up by fallacious rumour and scare tactics from left-wing journalists and politicians (Jeremy Corbyn on the Today Programme this morning is a classic example) the public has bought into a narrative that they are evermore worse off, ignorant to the reality that over the last ten years income inequality has been in gradual decline and is now at a level not seen since the mid 1980s.  When the Prime Minister talks of developing a country that works for everyone, and pledges to tackle the problem of inequality, all this serves to do is reinforce the public’s false perception and create a rod for her own back. While it may allay misplaced fears in the short-term, it is not a long-term remedy.

Third, many of the challenges on the Prime Minister’s agenda, such as tackling the country’s housing crisis, require the passing of contentious legislation through the House. With a working government majority of 14, and Brexit likely to put her at odds with many of her own MPs as well as those of the opposition, the Prime Minister is set to take on profound political challenges with limited political capital. How she uses that political capital is key. In making that decision she should remember that politicians never achieve greatness solely for their wise observations, soaring oratory or attempts to influence broad trends; it is their concrete achievements (or errors) that marks them for eternity. Obama is a strong orator but he will likely be remembered, for better or worse, for introducing a (perhaps very short-lived…) universal insurance system, for his foreign policy failures, for his patchy stewardship of the financial crisis and not for his “Yes we can” enthusiasm and ability to excite huge enthusiasm and optimism, impressive though those features of his performance may be. Blair was also a confident presenter but, although his presidential style and use of spin doctors will merit a footnote in the history books, the chapters will read of his fundamental reform of the Labour party, his blending of heavy taxation with private sector partnership and of course his involvement in the Iraq war.

Theresa May is no Cicero, but that is no handicap to leaving a profound legacy. Brexit will, perforce, be the largest part of her chapter. But to create a broader domestic legacy she must avoid straying into gentle, unobjectionable waffle about social justice and display a pin-sharp focus on the nuts and bolts of achieving reforms of realistic scope.  Her form in this area gives some cause for optimism. During her six years as Home Secretary she quickly earned a reputation for competency and no-nonsense leadership. But she also delivered results: under her watch crime fell to its lowest level since records began; she over saw the devolution of policing powers to local communities; reformed draconian stop and search measures; and helped coordinate security services to better defend against terrorism and the threat of radicalisation. One obvious challenge she could tackle is housing. The country is facing an acute housing shortage especially in the south-east. To solve the problem requires a relatively obvious fix: radical reform of country’s planning system. It also requires taking on huge vested interest groups, including countless NIMBY home owners and their MPs. But were she able to deliver on her housing pledge, she could be rest assured that she has left a legacy worth remembering.

2.86 avg. rating (60% score) - 7 votes
William Walter
William Walter
William Walter is the Founder and Editor of Comment Central. He began his career in Parliament working for three Conservative MPs — the then Shadow Minister for Universities & Skills, Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Opposition Treasury whip, James Duddridge MP, and former Shadow Pensions Minister, Nigel Waterson MP. In addition to his Parliamentary work he has also written for a range of publications, including: The Daily Telegraph, City AM, Metro and Conservative Home.
  • ArchiePonsonby

    “….earned a reputation for competency.” What the hell id “competency”? Does he mean ‘competence”, or is he American?

  • Dynamo11

    The sooner Mrs May cocks up Brexit and is knifed in the back the better

  • Debs

    Sounds like Mrs May is saying what she thinks she ought to say as usual.

    Wheres the meat? How about some family friendly policies.

    The family and settled communities have been attacked and undermined from all sides for the last 30 years,no wonder there are increases in mental health,child anxiety,loneliness in the elderly etc etc .NHS cannot cope .When the state steps in at every turn ,what could possibly go wrong?

    But an expansion of charities ,quangos ,jobsworths to tell us how to run our lives is not the answer.

  • Ravenscar

    I couldn’t agree more with that statement, well said.

  • Trojan

    I agree. But I fear that few of us believe it

  • Trojan

    ‘Theresa May is no Cicero’.

    I have to agree

  • Mojo

    We need government to solve the Union problem in this country. We need government to protect our borders and our citizens. We need government to stand up to the NHS and reform it. We need government to reform teaching in this country. We need government to reform itself and the HoL and to bring liberal London and its liberal media ethically into line with the rest of the U.K. Stop living in your tiny self serving bubble.
    What we don’t need is Government interference in every aspect of our lives. We are capable of solving our own problems, looking after our families and neighbours, creating cohesive communities, giving entrepreneurs and businesses the freedoms to lead this country into job prosperity. In our most exciting times in history it has been the people leading the way..not crown or government.
    It has been the people leading the way over Brexit. We know what is good for our country. We know where we want to be in the future so support those who have the hunger, ability and energy to do what they need to do. The rest will fall into place. I am sure it was the Government’s Project Fear that stopped so many from voting to leave the EU. It was the government easy come handouts that created the entitlement culture. It was the governments open door policy that ruined communities. I could go on…..and on……

  • digitaurus

    I’m torn between scorn that she hasn’t found any practical way to implement her ideas and profound relief.

  • ethanedwards2002

    This is just displacement activity. You have one job Sharia May. Get Art50 signed and us out.

    No more distractions please.

  • launcher

    Treasonous Maybe will betray the referendum result; this is a racing certainty.

  • Tad Stone

    Seems a very negative article. I think Teresa May is being very pragmatic and doing an excellent job. One carefully considered step at a time.

  • Doctor Crackles

    Britain’s charitable zeal built the very institutions that are now infested by socialists after having been appropriated in an act of national theft.

    May is a socialist.

  • Ravenscar

    Better,surely, to first roll back the state, so that communities, private and third sector organisations can be given the opportunity step up to the plate?

    While I applaud your general thrust, the state must be rolled back to virtually nothing and then the above paradoxical statement. You see in the above quote, you make exactly the same mistake that Theresa the terrible makes and bliar and dave before her “third sector organizations” are just more big government and you can’t solve problems for people unless they solve them for themselves.

  • quotes

    It was undeserved but the reputation was real

  • Derek

    There’s no meat on her policies. Infrastructure spend such as on rail will make zero difference to over 90% of lives in the regions. Roads are far more important in the regions and the roads are full in many areas because most never travel by rail year in, year out. Politicians much prefer to spend on rail than on roads -perhaps because
    of the juicy contracts? Who knows. there’s a long running fiction politically that rail will displace road travel. This is laughable. How could you get two lanes of lorries in both directions of the M1 onto rail unless you have bottomless pockets? Do the sums.
    Thousands of additional new homes will push towards gridlock in the regions. Who will the public blame?

    There need to be good paying skilled work in the regions which means investment in training there and infrastructure spend in the Cinderella regions rather than London. Is this likely?

  • John Lewis

    “During her six years as Home Secretary she quickly earned a reputation for competency”.

    I respectfully disagree.

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