George Pascoe Watson: The PM is pinning her hopes on the 1975 factor

Written by George Pascoe Watson on 15 November 2017 in Opinion

Number 10 is keen to trumpet unemployment figures last seen around the time that Margaret Thatcher became Tory leader.


The year was 1975. The Labour Party voted in favour of quitting the EU, but seven out of ten Brits voted to stay in in a referendum.

Margaret Thatcher succeeded Ted Heath as the Conservative Party leader. Mighty Leeds United were beaten in the European Cup Final, then banned from competing in Europe for three years because of fan violence.

The IRA were rampant, assassinating Ross McWhirter, founder of the Guinness Book of Records. Kate Winslet, Zac Goldsmith, David Beckham and Jamie Oliver entered our world. And the same ruling Labour Party introduced a year-long cap on wage rises.

Why does 1975 matter? Because that’s the last time unemployment in Britain was this low. And Theresa May believes the fundamentals of the UK economy are helping to underpin her stewardship of the nation.

Jobs figures out today show the number of unemployed has fallen nearly 60,000 in the last three months. No wonder employment minister Damian Hinds was trumpeting the latest figures saying: "A near-record number of people are now in work.”

The record also shows that Britain’s economy is continuing to grow. And buried in the figures, there is evidence that productivity – the holy grail of economic success – is also on the upturn.

Mrs May and her advisers are hopeful that this quarterly rise in productivity won’t be a flash in the pan. It will take two more quarters of uptick before she can pronounce a turnaround. That’s why on Monday next week she and Greg Clark will unveil the Industrial Strategy. The plan is, says one insider, to “get the industrial strategy right, get behind the innovative sectors of the economy that are already a strength and make them world leaders.”

Business Secretary Mr Clark presented his finalised announcement to the Cabinet on Tuesday this week. There was widespread approval. Fears amongst supporters that No 10 and the Treasury were losing the stomach for the strategy have been allayed, I’m told.

Both Mrs May and Chancellor Philip Hammond are prioritising the blueprint and indeed, its proximity to the Budget next week shows positive intent. The hope is it will supercharge productivity especially in the fields of advanced technology and artificial intelligence.

Those who know her well say the Premier is convinced that Britain is “well-placed” for Brexit because of the economy’s fundamentals.  The uncertainty that comes from a “will they, won’t they?” negotiation around trade talks is crippling to business.

One thing bosses need is certainty and that’s the one thing that’s not on offer until December 13 comes and goes. That’s when Mrs May must land her divorce settlement offer – one that must be accepted unanimously by 27 EU countries and the Commission.

Eurostar is swamped with British and EU officials coming and going on a daily basis trying to finalise an offer acceptable to all. If it’s not clinched in December, nothing will happen on trade talks until the next round of leaders’ meetings in March. That’s barely a year before we leave the EU.  

It would be odd if Mrs May wasn’t feeling the heat. Resignations and Cabinet Office enquiries are not helping but yet, the government has weathered major storms and these are the tests of survivability that some predicted it would fail.

Even some Labour figures privately observe that Speaker John Bercow’s willingness to grant urgent questions is hampering the ability of government to function properly. In whose interests is it to pull Boris Johnson back to the Commons when he could be negotiating the release of a British mum in Iran, they wonder?

This is what life is like when you’re governing with a confidence and supply arrangement. The dynamic is exhausting. No wonder Gordon Brown predicted that, thanks to the pressures of social media scrutiny, the days of 10 year prime ministers are now over,



George Pascoe Watson is a partner at Portland Communications and former political editor at The Sun.


Picture by: PA/PA Archive/PA Images



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