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12 July 2017

Leader: The disintegrating PM

Theresa May's difficulty is others’ opportunity, including those Tories scheming to bring her down.

By New Statesman

Theresa May marked her first anniversary as Prime Minister by delivering a speech at the launch of a commissioned report on modern working practices. Following her humiliation in the general election, it is easy to forget that Mrs May promised a year ago to evolve a more compassionate conservatism for the age of Brexit. She would develop an industrial strategy, introduce bold social reforms and create an economic model that “worked for everybody”. As part of this more interventionist turn, the May government commissioned Matthew Taylor, the former head of Tony Blair’s policy unit and current chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, to lead a review into workers’ rights and practices.

Of particular concern were the millions of people stuck in low-paid, stressful and insecure jobs, a source of disaffection that fuelled the Brexit vote. Those affected included the nearly one million people on zero-hours contracts, which do not guarantee any work, and those in the so-called gig economy, which is dominated by taxi services and food courier companies such as Uber and Deliveroo. While gig workers have the benefit of flexible shifts, they enjoy few of the protections of traditional employment, from paid sick and holiday leave to the minimum wage. Many are, in effect, managed by apps, whose founders have accumulated spectacular wealth.

Mr Taylor’s eight-month review concluded that all work should be “fair and decent with scope for fulfilment and development”. He recommended that gig economy workers should be entitled to sick and holiday pay, and that the Low Pay Commission explore the idea of a higher minimum wage for those who receive no guarantee about the hours they are expected to work. The report also suggested a new category of “dependant contractors” should be created in law to stop companies wrongly claiming that workers are self-employed.

These are positive steps but they do not go far enough, especially since Mrs May stopped short of promising legislation to tackle the problem. In addition, Mr Taylor defended zero-hours contracts, when it is clear that they are all too often abused by employers seeking to cut costs. The recommendation that gig economy companies be permitted to pay less than the minimum wage during slow times as long as their overall rate is higher has been rightly criticised by unions.

The Taylor report was a reminder of the ambitions Mrs May once had for her premiership. Before she called the snap general election, the Prime Minister seemed unassailable. But how reduced she now is. This week, she even appealed to rival parties to support her government. She urged opposition MPs to “contribute, not just criticise” and help “clarify and improve” policies. Had she been more conciliatory before the election, her opponents might have responded more favourably to her appeal. As it is, the Prime Minister’s difficulty is others’ opportunity, including those Tories scheming to bring her down. They know, as Mrs May must too, that her authority sadly diminishes with each passing week. 

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This sporting life

Much of the UK enjoyed fine weather last weekend, making it a good time to be outdoors. Yet the glorious array of sport on television made staying indoors tempting, too. Fans could flick between the BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon, where Andy Murray and Johanna Konta were playing well, and the Tour de France on ITV, where Chris Froome wore the yellow jersey. There was also an engrossing cricket Test match at Lord’s between England and South Africa, and the series decider between the British and Irish Lions and the mighty All Blacks, which ended in a thrilling draw.

Unfortunately, both the rugby and the cricket were only available to paying Sky subscribers. The pay channel ignored calls for the rugby Test to be free to view. This was to be regretted and was a lost opportunity for the sport. Millions of people who are not committed fans, including children who may never have played rugby, would have tuned in to watch the Lions in what was an epic clash. As for cricket, the BBC has regained the rights to broadcast some live games from 2020, which is to be welcomed. Sport is part of our national conversation. It should have the capacity to unite us all, not just those who can afford to pay to watch it. 

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions