George Pascoe Watson: The PM has been unlucky - but she will soldier on

Written by George Pascoe Watson on 11 October 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

Theresa May is keen to press ahead with initiatives such as the Race Disparity Audit, which was published this week and discussed in Number 10.

Theresa May is about ending burning injustice. Her week at Tory party conference was about burning injustice. Only the unluckiest leader would lose their voice during their “make or break” conference speech. Or be upstaged by a professional prankster, who delved into his pocket at point blank range to hand her a p45 in full view of armed protection officers. Or find the stage set collapse around her.

And that was before anyone knew about the coup underway against her. Or the nightmare battle facing her over Brexit.

Many people read the runes of Mrs May’s repositioning interview at the weekend as a warning to her Cabinet of an impending reshuffle. It’s not the first time since the beginning of the summer that the threat of the sack has been deployed to keep people in line. But I gather a shakeup of her top team is not on the cards for now. The threat remains. 

It’s a drastic step, no matter how much her 2015 and 2017 intake would applaud. No.  Mrs May is back – with the Race Disparity Audit. The energy price cap. Not exactly fighting fire with fire. But then this is her way.

It’s partly her way because she is much more committed to social change than most Conservatives. But it’s also because the political hand of cards she holds leaves her little option.

No one should doubt her plan is to soldier on with a conviction that fixing the social ills in Britain is something she can do. She had planned to unveil her Race Disparity Audit after the June general election. But there was anxiety amongst some that it would attract condemnation from Labour and other critics. They would accuse the Conservatives of presiding over a monumental failure in the public services, went the warning. So she agreed to delay. But it’s burned away on her conscience and she’s delivered it. And they needn’t have worried. People won’t remember the past. They will welcome the move to reform.

What’s more, how can Labour seriously object? Would they want to be on the wrong side of the argument?

The burning injustice Mrs May feels about social inequality doesn’t end there. There’s a large slice of her activity which is aimed at dragging her own Party into areas of discomfort.

This is brave. Especially at this time when many leaders would be retreating into a safety-first posture. Mrs May has attracted “blue on blue” flak for the race audit. Some Tory MPs and commentators have argued her action is unwanted and unhelpful to the Conservative cause. But it is precisely because the PM wants her Party to face its reputational past that she wants to act on this issue and others. For there will be others.

It helps, of course, that there isn’t a need to introduce Parliamentary legislation. Look into the Number 10 machine and you will see its new team bolstered by individuals with impressive whips office credentials.

Nikka da Costa has gone in as its first director of legislative affairs. Her job is to make sure policy is made possible where it might meet Parliamentary hurdles. James Marshall now heads up Mrs May’s policy unit. He’s a formidable former adviser to chief whips. There are others who hail from the whips office and the focus is deliberately on getting business through the Commons.

The calculations must be done before anyone steps on the minefield of Parliamentary legislation. Lose a vote and the whole thing can come tumbling down. Which is why Gavin Barwell, the PM’s chief of staff, is laser-like focused on activity that it’s hard for Labour to oppose in the Division Lobby.

There is something of the George Osborne playbook about it. The energy price cap is one such example. Mrs May will unveil the Bill this week. It will differ significantly from the price freeze proposed two years ago by Ed Miliband. Is it really something Labour will wish to oppose in a division?

Mrs May faces an incredibly tough run-in to Christmas. Brexit negotiations have reached a crunch point. She cannot spell out her vision of the “end game” because her Cabinet and Party cannot agree. Everyone has a different ambition. The balance can only be kept for so long. 

Chancellor Philip Hammond has become something of an unlikely hero in the corporate world for pushing for an extended transition period. But he’s fighting ferocious briefing against him within government at a time when some of his closest advisers have jumped ship.

It will not help that Britain’s growth prospects are being downgraded. And that’s before the Budget, an event in which Treasury people warn will see the first negative impacts of Brexit uncertainty showing through.

Preparing for no Brexit deal with the EU has been underway for some time. Though wise heads are reminding the Premier that EU negotiators normally wait until 5.30am before signing off on a deal. It would be sensible to stay at the table to the bitter end, they point out. There is a very long way to go indeed. 

Although this isn’t helpful to business, who crave certainty, it’s at least a strong point of view guiding Mrs May’s strategic approach.

The dilemma she faces was captured neatly in an LBC interview with Iain Dale, when asked how she would vote in a referendum today. She would not say. But she insisted: “I’m not a quitter.” Meanwhile the search continues for policy ideas that allow Mrs May to fight those burning injustices.

 

 

 

Picture by: PA Wire/PA Images.

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