After an assured and confident start, Theresa May’s government shows welcome signs of moving boldly, if not always in the right direction
To date, this blog has not wasted undue time speculating about Theresa May’s premiership and assessing her early performance – not least because we are only just starting to emerge from summer silly season, and there has not been much yet to judge.
But as somebody who would never have wanted a flinty-eyed authoritarian like Theresa May to become leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of the UK, I must admit that so far I am cautiously impressed.
The relative silence from Number 10 Downing Street over the summer break was refreshing, and the fact that we were not bombarded with press releases, superficial policy announcements and a load of government spin showed the best side of Theresa May – the no nonsense, hardworking operator.
Such rows and dramas as did break out – like the childish playground spat between Liam Fox and Boris Johnson over responsibility for promoting Britain’s commercial interests – were slapped down quickly, while similar turf wars and petty rivalries between SpAds were frequently allowed to fester and spiral into damaging newsworthy wars under David Cameron.
Of course, the worst Big Government, security state instincts of Theresa May are never far from the surface, and soon this blog will likely be riding to battle against the government’s Investigatory Powers Act, due to return before Parliament soon.
And on the most important issue of Brexit, there is still no sense that ministers have even truly begun to wrap their heads around the complexity of what is to come, let alone have an appreciation of the key challenges and opportunities. Theresa May has made a rod for her own back by stating her commitment to significant up-front immigration reductions as a key part of the package, which only makes the vital interim EFTA/EEA transitory option (with controls on immigration in the line of the Liechtenstein model) that much harder to achieve.
And yet there is also good news on Brexit, not least the willingness of our allies in Canada, New Zealand and Australia to lend us the services of their skilled trade negotiators as Britain struggles to regain core competencies in areas of national sovereignty which we allowed to wither and atrophy during our EU imprisonment. Also somewhat heartening is the seeming enthusiasm and energy which the government is throwing into pursuing various assorted “trade deals”.
While the devil will be in the scope and the details, this newfound diplomatic vigour is encouraging to witness, and only emphasises why David Cameron and George Osborne had to go after fighting against Brexit and losing the referendum. This is no time for surly, sulking brooders more keen to prove their Brexit doomsday scenarios true than to faithfully serve the nation to be anywhere near the levers of government. Senior civil servants should take note.
The confident appearance at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China, also marked a welcome break from the past. Gordon Brown’s desperate, fawning approval-seeking, so unbecoming to the leader of an indispensable nation, and David Cameron’s oleaginous Davos Man act, the coping mechanism of somebody who never really understood what it is to be a statesman, were both beneath Britain. By contrast, Theresa May looked every bit the equal of Barack Obama at their joint press conference, neither Blairite poodle nor Brownite starry-eyed fan. For a country which has too often punched beneath its weight diplomatically (thanks in no small part to our absorption within the EU) it is encouraging to see that Theresa May seems to be taking her marching orders from the British people seriously.
But these are only first impressions. The complexities of Brexit have yet to bite (those daily articles either celebrating the Brexit success or gleefully validating the apocalypse are mindless puff pieces from a Westminster media class which has no interest in getting enmeshed in the details, or learning from those in the know). The migrant crisis remains unresolved. ISIS and the threat of radical Islamist terror remain pointedly undefeated. Domestic policy needs to be given new direction and urgency – preferably, given the Labour Party’s ongoing implosion, in the opposite direction to the Cameron/Osborne march to the political centre.
Looking ahead, this blog hopes and expects to see Jeremy Hunt let off the leash and given authority to tear some much-deserved chunks out of the arrogant BMA and the junior doctors’ dispute which has been a grubby pay dispute and not a high-minded defence of Our Blessed NHS (genuflect) all along.
Sensible measures on tax reform would be welcome too – though the words “daring” and “bold” hardly come to mind when picturing Philip Hammond, it would be good to see the scope of Theresa May’s ambition extending not just to make Britain’s tax regime attractive to foreign investors, but also to rewarding and encouraging individuals and small businesses. The 45% top rate of tax, a partial remnant of the stench of Gordon Brown’s premiership, must certainly go, but we also hope to see something more ambitious than mere tinkering around the edges of the tax code.
A renewed commitment to national defence and the Armed Forces would also turn the page on David Cameron’s willingness to see the UK lose core capabilities. The NATO target of 2% of GDP to be spent on defence should be treated like a minimum requirement, not an aspiration or a triumph to be crowed about. For a seafaring island nation, the Royal Navy is worryingly undermanned, and may struggle to operate even one of its new aircraft carriers, let alone both. Unlike other European powers, our maritime patrol and coastguard capabilities are virtually nonexistent. These and other issues should be remedied.
One would like to add robust support for freedom of speech and civil liberties to this list, and an end to persecution of people at the hands of the criminal justice system merely for the beliefs they hold or the ideas that they express – but let us not kid ourselves. There is no sign yet that a popular rebellion against the state’s efforts to criminalise thought and speech is anywhere near gaining traction. In fact, even many of those who spend half their time praising free speech (when it suits their own purposes) are happy to turn around, play the wounded victim and demand that others are held to account for expressing speech which they dislike.
A nasty authoritarian streak runs through Britain, and by no means only at the level of the political elite. Go to any pub or hipster coffee shop and you’ll hear people of all backgrounds and demographics expressing outrage at something and suggesting that it should therefore be banned by the government. And while Theresa May’s Conservative government is almost certainly likely to be a disappointment on the issues of free speech and civil liberties, they will be no more of a disappointment than many of the British people themselves.
So here we are, nearly two months into Theresa May’s premiership and there are unexpected causes for optimism and good cheer in a number of areas. There are also, inevitably, areas where May’s instincts and political convictions mean that she must be watched like a hawk and opposed where necessary. But over two months since the historic EU referendum and nearly two months into a most unexpected new premiership, Britain does seem to be walking a little taller and more confidently in the world.
Long may it continue.
This post was originally published by the author 4 September 2016: https://semipartisansam.com/2016/09/04/two-month-report-card-first-thoughts-on-theresa-mays-premiership/