May must tell us what she believes

Posted on September 30, 2016

(FILES) This file photo taken on August 31, 2016 shows Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (4R) speaking as she chairs a cabinet meeting sat next to British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (R) at the Prime Minister's country retreat Chequers near the village of Ellesborough in Buckinghamshire, northwest of London, on August 31, 2016. Divisions in Prime Minister Theresa May's Cabinet generated confusion over Brexit on September 23, 2016 after a series of mixed messages on how and when Britain will leave the European Union. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Stefan RousseauSTEFAN ROUSSEAU/AFP/Getty Images©AFP

Theresa May has to start joining the dots soon or others will do it for her

Try drafting a speech for a big political moment (I was never very good at it) and you often take refuge in flabby words. They are boring to use and yet keep gurgling out. The word the Conservatives have chosen for their annual conference is “everyone” and it is a classic of the kind. A government for everyone, led by a prime minister for everyone, making Britain a better place for everyone: there will be lots of this sort of stuff in Birmingham. It will not be enough to carry Theresa May through the week.

Does she know it? The default prime minister, she got the job in silence without having to fight a contest in her party, an election in the country or an opposition in the Commons. Since then she has said almost nothing. We know there is a real person in there. She has bags of command. But who is she? Her party conference is a late and perhaps last chance to tell us. In politics every stab at phrasemaking, every policy, every response to the crises that hit you every day, is an indelible dot on a white sheet. There comes a point when, if you do not join up the dots, the world will do it for you. Mrs May is nearing that point.

    Her instincts must direct her towards prolonging the mystery. After long campaigns for a general election and a referendum, and David Cameron’s sleeves-rolled-up, DayGlo-jacketed, today-I-can-announce style, Mrs May’s sense will be that less is more. Sir Craig Oliver, Mr Cameron’s former communications chief, has complained of her “submarine” invisibility during the Europe campaign (and before), but it worked. She knows that sensible people mostly do not want to hear from politicians. She also has (for now) the goodwill of voters who do not think of themselves as Conservatives — among them, one poll suggests, almost a third of people who backed Labour last year.

    But she cannot stay the strong silent type without the suspicion that she says nothing because she has nothing to say. As Gordon Brown found out, holding power without a plan turns toxic very fast. She must start talking simply and clearly about what she intends to do.

    The biggest issue is Brexit. At the moment we can only guess her intentions by a process of elimination as she knocks back every comment from the variously inadequate ministers she has set against each other. She should tell us what the plan is — if there is a plan. If there is not, she should tell us how she intends to come up with one. If this does not happen soon, we should panic.

    The Conservative party’s demons forced the referendum on Britain. Now she must face them. On Sunday the prime minister will talk Brexit. After that she will want to move on, drawing party and country together. The extremists will come for her in the end, though, just as they came for her recent predecessors. She needs to make it hard for them by pumping content into the vacuum as fast as she can.

    She should also look beyond Brexit, at the wider consequence of Mr Cameron’s allergy to philosophy: a stack of policies without an idea to thread them together. I remember his dismissive snort when Michael Gove told him he needed a theory of the state — but Mr Gove was right. Now Mrs May needs the same.

    Where do the limits of government lie and who should control it? Is she for an open world or a closed one? In foreign policy, is she an interventionist or an isolationist? At home, is she for freedom or order? Does she want to help the very poorest in society or protect the interests of the anxious middle? Does she back austerity or spending under the guise of borrowing to invest? How should markets be run? Is she serious about an industrial strategy, or doing something about pay differentials and if so why and how?

    To some of these questions it is possible to guess her gut response. Members of what George Osborne calls the “liberal mainstream majority” see in Mrs May a disquieting Britain decorated with box hedges and suburban drives; a nation defined by timidity, introspection and a failure to understand what it takes to make a modern economy and society work, which, if business implodes, will only make the nation’s alienation from politics worse. If she disagrees with that diagnosis, she should say so.

    Conservative conference

    Theresa May prepares for Birmingham

    Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May reacts as she visits the 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment at their barracks at Bulford Camp near Salisbury, south-west England, on September 29, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Matt CardyMATT CARDY/AFP/Getty Images

    The clamour for clarification has been the main theme of this week

    Mr Cameron also left behind a number of policy processes that need either to be killed or carried on. What does she want to do with universal credit, the Northern Powerhouse, HS2, the oversized aid budget or a military programme that buys behemoth aircraft carriers and missiles but sacks soldiers? Are the watchwords of the NHS still “tinker” and “stave off” or might she risk serious reform? What steer can she give someone like Elizabeth Truss, flailing around at the Ministry of Justice? What view does our country-walk-loving prime minister hold about farming, climate change and planning?

    And what about airport expansion? Mr Cameron could never decide if he wanted to reach out to the world from a muscular Heathrow or narrow down to let the property owners of Richmond and Kew sleep for longer. I saw him insist at one ill-tempered meeting that the answer had to be Gatwick. The planned July announcement was tipping the other way. The new prime minister’s choice here will define her.

    Not all of this can or should be answered in one go. But this is the moment to start. Waffle about “whoever you are, wherever you come from, our party is for you” is not enough to make a speech. “Everyone” is not a proposal. “Upwards” is not a plan. Most party conferences matter less than people say. This one could matter much more.

    The writer is a former special adviser to David Cameron

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