One Month On: Is Theresa May's Kite-Flying Government Working?

30/08/2016 15:28 | Updated 30 August 2016

Theresa May's first full month in office ended with her party riding high in the polls. She has also shown decisiveness in personnel management. However, the policy priorities and detail of her government remain something of an unknown quantity. The May government's methods are, nonetheless, starting to become apparent. There has been some flying of plausibly deniable policy kites to test parliamentary, public and press reactions. Notable examples have been around grammar schools and energy policy.

The first of these in particular hints at symbolic policy shifts to please social conservatives who felt ignored by David Cameron's patrician Tory version of establishment liberalism. Giving groups such as the Campaign for Real Education, the restoration of grammar schools would thus be a visible sign, in policy terms, of taking back control from an unresponsive establishment elite seemingly demanded by the Brexit vote. This is indeed rapidly becoming the standard interpretation of the 23 June vote, both in Britain and abroad. For example, in Lee Hsien Loong's Prime Minister's address to Singapore's National Day Rally on 21 August, Brexit was invoked as a shorthand warning of what happens to governments who ignore the governed.

Such an interpretation is probably politically convenient for Theresa May's government, as it reduces the complexities of Brexit to protest. The idea of reviving grammar schools similarly reduces complex issues to simple certainties. They supplement the focus on measurement of performance of successive governments since the 1980s with a belief that grammar schools benefit social mobility. In practice both of these are flawed, stressing as they do measurement or mechanisms rather than ensuring young people learn how to learn and how to think.

While grammar schools and the idea that they represent past educational standards that ought to be revived appeals to a range of social conservatives, it is less clear who the fracking rhetoric is designed to please. Government thinking may be that this will bring economic revival, not least to the North, with middle-class nimbys bought off with compensation. However, the idea that the Brexit vote was a protest by the poor has been overstated. In all parts many Leave voters are reasonably well-off, but resentful of changes to their life and/or culture seemingly imposed by unaccountable elites. The Daily Mail nonetheless clearly shares the government's view that they can be won over, not least through small amounts of compensation.

The Daily Mail has also presented fracking as a replacement for the Hinkley Point nuclear power station. This project has also been the subject of some of the government's summer kite-flying. Given the hints the Prime Minister has dropped that she prioritises prices over the other two key issues in the energy policy arena - security and environmental considerations - Hinkley Point must now be looking somewhat uncertain.

Whether the May government is setting an agenda in these areas, or simply trialling one already developed in elements of the right-wing press is a moot point. If nothing else, it certainly helps to preserve an image of unity on the right in contrast to the situation in Labour. Indeed, the Tory loyalty to the institution of the party - though not, of course, each other - has meant that for many electors they currently look like the only available party of government. This and the rally round the flag effect of the Olympics - despite May's absence from Rio - has delivered the Tories poll ratings not seen since they were an as yet untested opposition in 2009. Of course, what they are now is an untested government.

Beneath the surface, however, they are as divided as Labour, not least over some of May's summer policy kite-flying. That these divisions are neither as bitter nor as public as within Labour does not make them less real. In these circumstances the methods used by Theresa May at the Home Office - of close control and tough rhetoric not usually matched by delivery - combined with a tendency for kite-flying, seems likely to become characteristic of this government.