Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. Using NHS as a football will be a Tory own goal (Times)

Downing Street’s determination to drop its consensual line on health service failures could backfire with voters, says Rachel Sylvester.

2. UK benefits cap is great politics but cynical policy (Financial Times)

It is a mistake to think the limit is anything other than a symbol, writes John McDermott.

3. The coalition failed to act on my concerns about the NHS (Daily Telegraph)

Ministers' determination to pin responsibility for any problems revealed by the Keogh report on the last government is cynical politicking, says Andy Burnham.

4. Cigarette packaging: the corporate smokescreen (Guardian)

Noble sentiments about individual liberty are being used to bend democracy to the will of the tobacco industry, writes George Monbiot.

5. Britain should rise above Russian might (Financial Times)

By blocking a public inquiry into Litvinenko, the UK plays to the most cynical Putin-esque instincts, says Gideon Rachman.

6. Race is a constant in US life - as elsewhere (Independent)

The death of Trayvon Martin has proved that race is still a factor in national life – but name one country on earth which has a significant racial minority where it is not, writes Rupert Cornwell.

7. You can't nurture families as the government is uprooting them (Guardian)

A report advocating a reprise of the Sure Start vision is heart-warming but seems unreal as the coalition cuts and cuts, says Polly Toynbee.

8. We must answer the 100,000-euro question (Daily Telegraph)

Britain cannot debate leaving the EU properly without a good idea of what it would mean, writes Gisela Stuart.

9. Let’s not rest until we’ve stubbed out smoking (Times)

Having a cigarette is not a human right, says Oliver Kamm. 

10. If Samantha Cameron's 'grounded', I'm the next Tory PM (Guardian)

Fawning over the prime minister's unelected, aristocratic wife fits the pattern of a party that still doesn't take women seriously, says Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett.

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories