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24 January 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:27pm

Leader: A government adrift

There is a joylessness about Mrs May. She lacks imagination and nimbleness

By New Statesman

What is this Conservative government for? After becoming Prime Minister in 2016, Theresa May aspired to be a transformational leader in the mould of Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher. She understood, or professed to understand, that Brexit had created the conditions for a political and economic recalibration: these were new times. Yet she now leads one of the most politically and intellectually rudderless administrations in recent history. The government has no meaningful project beyond the self-defeating task of Brexit, which the Prime Minister and her Chancellor do not even believe in.

The divisions within the cabinet and the wider party reflect and reinforce a sense of drift and torpor. On 19 January, the former planning minister Nick Boles said in public what many of his fellow Tory MPs were saying in private, when he observed: “There is a timidity and lack of ambition about Mrs May’s government which means it constantly disappoints. Time to raise your game, Prime Minister.”

The Tory grandee Nicholas Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill, has also publicly called for boldness and improved leadership. The absence of direction on the NHS, transport, schools, housing and other issues risks destroying the Conservative Party. With the exception of the energetic Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, cabinet ministers aspire to little more than day-to-day survival. Indeed, this is a government now almost entirely run by the civil service.

The National Health Service is of particular concern. As Matthew Green reports on page 30, after the longest period of austerity in its history, the NHS is under unprecedented strain, exacerbated by a winter flu epidemic and an ageing population: we are living longer but not necessarily healthier lives. Though NHS leaders warned that they needed a minimum of £4bn this year to maintain current standards, the government provided only £1.6bn.

The project of sustaining a free public health service would have been a worthy one for Mrs May. In her early months as Prime Minister, she sought to reaffirm the place of the state in conservative philosophy and articulated a politics of the common good. Yet since the departure of her chief ideologue, Nick Timothy, such communitarian thinking has largely been lost (as it was during the Tories’ 2017 general election campaign). Early Mayism, such as it was, may turn out to have been Timothyism: communitarian, pro-state, anti-libertarian, softly nationalistic. A mix of Orwell and Burke.

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The Prime Minister was politically and personally humiliated by the loss of her parliamentary majority. However, this alone cannot be blamed for the Conservatives’ farcical party conference and the recent shambolic cabinet reshuffle. There is a joylessness about Mrs May. She lacks imagination and nimbleness. Compared to the politically and intellectually dynamic French president, Emmanuel Macron, her outlook is resolutely parochial.

Britain has seldom needed a competent and visionary government more. The UK does not build enough homes for its young or provide adequate social care for its old. Its economy is too imbalanced and unproductive. Its rich and poor are too divided. The possibility that Mrs May’s enfeebled government may endure for several more years is a chastening one. If the Prime Minister has any vision left, it is time to show it. 

Women in power

A century ago, on 6 February 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave the first British women the vote. Since then, progress for women in politics has often felt grindingly slow – it took until 1979 for the country to have its first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and the Labour Party has never been led by a woman, caretaker leaders notwithstanding. Although overtly sexist commentary and attitudes are declining, the rise of online and offline abuse presents a new challenge for women. The harassment of MPs (with women singled out for particular opprobrium) is shameful and unacceptable. 

Yet there are also grounds for optimism. As our cover photo shoot demonstrates, there are senior women across all parties, and both the DUP and SNP have female leaders, who present their demands over Brexit and the economy to Britain’s female prime minister. The suffragettes would be proud. 

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power