UK Politics

Sleepwalking into the future

Theresa May's reluctance to commit and, more importantly, to act, has defined her administration

BY Walter Ellis | Waltroon   /  22 December 2016

An excellent column appeared in The Times on Wednesday by Clare Foges. The thrust of her argument was neatly contained in the headline, “Our safety-first PM must beware stagnation,” by which she meant that Mrs May has to start taking bold decisions rather than constantly steadying the ship.

This is spot-on. When the former Home Secretary emerged as Cameron’s successor, supported by MPs uneasy about the possible alternatives, I was relieved that at least a grown-up was in charge, not a bore, an extremist or a clown.

I had, though, one or two concerns, which nagged away at me. The first was that when she was charge of the Home Office she had given the Police Federation a roasting, vowing that if it didn’t engage in fundamental reform she would abolish it. Subsequently, she did … nothing. Not a sausage. All we got was an open-ended independent review while the police continued exactly as before.

Second, almost as soon as she moved into Downing Street she announced that Brexit means Brexit, without explaining herself or giving any clue as to her intentions. All that mattered, she said, was that the will of the people had to be respected, whatever that meant.

Given that she had supported Remain, and would presumably have welcomed a vote in that direction, this troubled me. But then again, her support for the Prime Minister during the campaign had been so feeble that it barely registered on the referendum Richter scale. It was as though she was hedging her bets and readying herself to fall in behind whatever result the voters delivered. Was this principled? I’m starting to wonder.. She could have made a speech in which she admitted that the public had been warned and must now look forward to years of difficult negotiations. She could have added that success could be achieved but that it would come at a price, which had been her public position just days previously. Instead, she implied that all would be well without ever saying what the “all” was – a position she has maintained ever since. 

As Foges points out, May’s reluctance to commit and, more importantly, to act, has defined her administration. Almost nothing of substance has come out of the Tory Cabinet since Cameron rode off into the sunset. The Government appears to be locked into a holding pattern, in which decisions are deferred and issues are looked at rather than resolved. If it wasn’t for Philip Hammond, nothing would get done at all and steady-as-she-goes would be the sole ministerial mantra.

It is hard not to believe that May doesn’t know what she wants but just wants to be prime minister. Perhaps the truth is that she is not up to the job. 

In Brussels the other day, she was slighted by the EU top brass and their acolytes. She looked helpless and frightened. Margaret Thatcher would never have let them away with that. They wouldn’t have dared to ignore her. Tony Blair would have made himself the focus of attention. John Major would have appealed to their sense of decency. Gordon Brown, like the Ancient Mariner, would have held them with his glittering eye. Mrs May just looked lost. She can dish it out to Jeremy Corbyn or ministers and MPs who cross her. She isn’t up to it with those wielding power as great or greater than her own. This does not bode well for the Brexit negotiations. 

As a matter of urgency, the Prime Minister has to tell her ministers to “get on with it”. We need legislation. We need a clear sense of direction on issues such as strikes, social welfare and prisons. At the same time, Mrs M has to announce what it is she wants from the EU. Does she want Britain to remain in the single market and the customs union or does she not? The referendum was six months ago and it’s about time she let us in on the secret. 

Wilbur Ross, Donald Trump’s choice as Commerce Secretary, is on record as saying that good negotiations begin with the clearly stated aims of the competing parties. This has to be right. Otherwise talks would be built on nothing but half-truths and deception. Mrs May, however, seems to be chiefly concerned with preventing anybody from finding out what her objectives are, as if that were a virtue. Maybe she is waiting for the solution to her country’s European dilemma to fall into her lap, like manna from Heaven.  But that’s not how it works. The Government is sleepwalking. It needs to wake up.