Theresa Maybe, Britain’s indecisive premier

The Economist, 07.01.2017
  • After six months, what the new prime minister stands for is still unclear—perhaps even to her


Within hours of the Brexit referendum last summer David Cameron had resigned, and within three weeks Theresa May had succeeded him as prime minister. The speed of her ascent to power, on July 13th 2016, without a general election or a full-blown Tory leadership contest, meant that Mayism was never spelt out in any manifesto or endorsed by the electorate. Yet the new prime minister soon made clear the scale of her ambitions for Britain. Not only would she make a success of Brexit, she would also set in motion a sea-change in social mobility to correct the “burning injustices” faced by the downtrodden, and reshape “the forces of liberalism and globalisation which have held sway...across the Western world.” Her allies talked of an epochal moment, comparable to Margaret Thatcher’s break with the past in 1979. The feeble condition of the Labour opposition gave Mrs May control of a one-party state. As for her mandate, she cited the referendum: a “quiet revolution” by people “not prepared to be ignored any more”.

Yet after half a year in office there is strikingly little to show for this May revolution (see Briefing). The strategy for Brexit, which is due to be triggered in less than three months, remains undefined in any but the vaguest terms, and seems increasingly chaotic. At home, the grand talk about transforming society and taming capitalism has yielded only timid proposals, many of which have already been scaled down or withdrawn. The growing suspicion is that the Sphinx-like prime minister is guarded about her plans chiefly because she is still struggling to draw them up.


The emperor’s new trousers

Mrs May built a reputation for dogged competence during six years at the Home Office, a tricky beat that has wrecked many political careers. She skilfully survived the Brexit referendum despite backing the losing side. In the abbreviated Conservative leadership race she stood out as the only grown-up; few Tories regret plumping for her over the unprepared and unserious other contenders. In negotiating Brexit, the hardest task for any prime minister since the second world war, she faces a powerful drain on political capital and governmental capacity. Half the country is against the idea and the rest may sour once its drawbacks materialise. Most of the civil servants implementing Brexit think it a mistake. If Britain’s next few years will be about avoiding traps, then the wary tenacity of Mrs May could be just what the country needs.

Yet caution has started to look like indecision. Her most senior official in Brussels has just resigned, saying that the government does not have a clear Brexit plan (see article). After six months it is hard to name a single signature policy, and easy to cite U-turns. Some are welcome: a silly promise to put workers on company boards, for instance, was abandoned; a dreadful plan to make firms list their foreign employees lasted less than a week; and hints at curbing the Bank of England’s independence were quietly forgotten. Selective “grammar” schools will be resurrected—but only on a small scale, and perhaps not at all, given how many Tory MPs oppose the idea. Other reversals smack of dithering. The construction of a new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point was put in doubt, then given the go-ahead; a new runway at Heathrow airport was all but agreed on, then deferred until a parliamentary vote next year. “Just-about-managing” households were the prime minister’s lodestar for a week or so, then dropped. So were suggestions that Britain would seek a transitional deal with the EU after Brexit—until they were recirculated a few weeks later when Mrs May apparently changed her mind once again.

The cause of this disarray could be that Mayism itself is muddled. While vowing to make Britain “the strongest global advocate for free markets”, the prime minister has also talked of reviving a “proper industrial strategy”. This is not about “propping up failing industries or picking winners”, she insists. Yet unspecified “support and assurances” to Nissan to persuade the carmaker to stay in Sunderland after Brexit amount to more or less that. Her enthusiasm for trade often sits uncomfortably with her scepticism of migration. Consider the recent trip to India, where her unwillingness to give way on immigration blocked progress on a free-trade agreement.


A citizen of nowhere

There is one lesson in the overdone comparison of Mrs May to Thatcher. The woman who really did transform Britain had a shambolic first term; privatisation and union reform, with which she is now associated, did not really get going until after 1983. Angela Merkel also made a shaky start as Germany’s chancellor. Mrs May could yet find her feet—and given the state of Labour, she will have time to do so, if Brexit does not provide her own party with a reason to oust her.

Yet Mrs May could turn out to resemble another, less obvious predecessor: Gordon Brown. He, too, was thin-skinned. Like her, he moved into Downing Street without an election, in 2007. He also started with a fearsome reputation and big promises. And when it became clear he had little idea what to do with the job he had so coveted, he flopped. The financial crisis paralysed his government because of his desire to micromanage every decision.

There is more than a little of this in Mrs May. One person can just about run the Home Office single-handed. But being prime minister requires delegation—especially when Brexit looms so large. Care for the elderly is fraying. The National Health Service is running out of money. A housing shortage is worsening. Scotland and Northern Ireland are raising awkward constitutional questions. As long as every proposal has to be pored over by the prime minister, radical decisions of the sort needed to solve these problems will not be taken. To get a grip on Britain, Mrs May must learn to loosen hers.

For this, she must decide what the grand promises of her government actually amount to. The need for every policy to be agonised over in Downing Street, the secrecy over Brexit and the silence on the government’s broader plans for Britain all point to the same problem: Theresa Maybe does not really know what she wants.

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