Leading article

Does Theresa May’s zombie government even want to survive?

11 November 2017

9:00 AM

11 November 2017

9:00 AM

Dealing with a hung parliament was never going to be easy, but no one quite foresaw the decay which now seems to have set in to Theresa May’s government. The best that can be said for the Prime Minister is that the past week’s events have weakened her rivals within the Conservative party. No one is talking up Priti Patel as a potential rival any more and a challenge from Boris Johnson is now highly unlikely, following his loose words about a British woman incarcerated in Iran — which the Iranian regime may use as a pretext to increase her sentence. Like John Major, the Prime Minister benefits from the feuding in the Cabinet and is kept in place by the fear that a leadership challenge would see the party rip itself apart.

Had Mrs May a majority of 100 or more — as she was widely expected to win in June’s election — such travails, together with the resignation of her Defence Secretary, the pornography allegations against her effective deputy, Damian Green, and the suspension of a backbench MP, Charlie Elphicke, on charges which have been referred to the police, would be a hugely damaging distraction. As it is, they present an immediate existential crisis.

It is not just a question of whether the government can survive, but does it even want to? Five months into its term there is a horrible weariness to everything it does. It is too much to hope for a big idea, but there seem to be few small ideas either. What should be the government’s triumphant flagship policy, Universal Credit, which began with broad political support, has been undermined by poor execution. This has played into the opposition’s narrative about uncaring and out-of-touch Tories. Problems such as these should have been visible a mile off.

And then, Brexit. There is no point in Britain leaving the EU unless it is done boldly. It has to be an unapologetic opening up of the UK economy to the world, in which we out-compete the EU for trade and investment. At present, it looks as if Brexit is being enacted in the spirit of a damage-limitation exercise, where we pay large sums in order to retain some of the privileges that we had before. That is, of course, how many Remainers see Brexit. If the government is seen to approach it in the same way it will end in horrible failure.

Shortly after losing the election, Jeremy Corbyn predicted that he would nevertheless become prime minister within a year. And who would be bold enough, in the current chaotic circumstances, to rule this out? But if it is to be averted, the government needs to rediscover its will to govern — and quickly. The Budget on 22 November now becomes critical. A weakened Chancellor first has to secure the support of many Tory MPs who would rather he did not have the job. No government could survive the loss of its finance bill, and it will not take many rebels to fell this one, sending the country back to the polls for a yawning third time in as many years.

But the successful carriage of the Budget will not be enough. For the government to get itself back into a state in which it can hope to survive for the medium term, there has to be an offer to voters more appealing than Philip Hammond’s miserable spring Budget. Housing, we are told, will be a central theme. Which is odd, because housing is the responsibility of Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary. Word is that Mr Hammond wishes to make various announcements that have nothing to do with the Treasury precisely because he has been unable to muster any ideas of his own. He is also refusing to share details of his Budget with the Prime Minister, and astonishes even his own aides with his habit of talking down to her.

There are plenty of things he can do. Universal Credit needs its purpose restored, so it is actually better than the unreformed welfare system. This means a reversal, at least in part, of the cuts made by George Osborne. The original purpose of wrapping six benefits into one — that it would eliminate the welfare trap which dissuaded the unemployed from taking up jobs and the lightly employed from taking on extra hours — needs restating. The damaging notion that Universal Credit is just a penny-pinching exercise has to be dispelled. If this costs money, so be it.

There is one legacy of which this government can already be proud and it should talk about it far more: delivering the lowest unemployment rate in more than 40 years. More stable governments would have given their eye teeth for jobless figures like this. Moreover, employment has risen in spite of dire warnings that the opposite would happen.

Now the government needs to build its own rescue strategy on this remarkable achievement. Free, open trade and investment with the rest of the world, flexible labour markets and a streamlined benefits system which incentivises work should all be part of it. As things stand, the agenda involves more taxes, more spending and energy price caps. Is there a point to this supposedly Conservative government, other than to cling to power and hope it will survive the next day’s newspapers? If so, we need to hear it in the Budget. If not, Mr Corbyn might be proved right after all.


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