The Blog

Why Mrs May Must Go

it is hard to know how to take Teresa May's decision to remain Prime Minister. Is this just an interim step while the Conservative party considers who should lead it next behind closed doors or does she really think that, following the misjudgements of her campaign, she still has the confidence of the British people? Well, we will soon find out but I must say that I hope it is the latter because the time has come to select a prime minister of quite a different stamp.

The Conservatives' link with the Democratic Unionists will give them an initial majority of two but it will be a highly unstable one. Suppose that, as seems likely, we go through difficult times as Brexit is negotiated. A couple of Conservative MPs occupying marginal seats expire and Labour wins the ensuing by-elections. Suddenly there is a reversal of approach to the negotiation and the country's stance on Brexit softens. The City becomes less important and we confirm to the EU that we will not walk away without a deal. Well, if you're a Remainer you might like that. Off we go towards free movement of people as a price for membership of the market.

Now let's fast forward to the next scene. The new government immediately increases the National Living Wage and corporation tax, and sterling drops badly. Labour loses its popularity and now there is a by-election in a Labour seat. Back come the Tories with their harder Brexiteers. Put those looser rules in the shredder. We are going to tough it out after all. Everything switches into reverse and that causes a lot of disruption for which the new government is blamed. A Conservative member in a marginal seat dies............

"Strong and stable" is not the epithet which I would naturally attach to this system. We are not at war and there is no argument for a coalition between parties which represent very different approaches, but it is important that there should be some discussion between the main parties as to the way in which the Brexit negotiations should be carried out. If, for example, the Government's reference to "no deal being a better than a bad deal" is more about negotiating stance than where they want to end up, it should be something of which the opposition parties are well aware. If Labour's comment that there "will" be a deal is actually conditional on there being a deal which does not require free movement of labour, the Government should be aware of that too. It is not unusual for leaders or prominent members of opposite parties to discuss the main issues of the day. The Labour leader John Smith was said to enjoy a late-night whisky with John Major and Harold Wilson gave unofficial advice to Margaret Thatcher. Probably there on many other links too. At the moment that sort of liaison is badly needed and it is hard to imagine that it is quite Mrs May's thing.

There is another reason to why we need a softer Prime Minister. The election results seem to show a generational split with the young feeling disenfranchised over University Fees, a shortage of homes and cutbacks in school finance. These are important issues on which new thinking is badly required and the resetting of the balance between taxation and these needs will need some flexibility. Again it is probably time for a new broom and one which listens to what Labour and SDP voters have been saying.

Much is being written about how Mrs May should have taken more care not to alienate her core supporters. Some point to the loss of the triple lock on pensions, others to the means testing of the winter fuel allowance; there is the ill-fated dementia tax. Judged by narrow interest those changes may have been foolish but there is a different perspective to them too. I suspect that Mrs May would tell us that the grey-haired generation are being given more of the available resources than the country can afford and that she decided to push the balance back. She must have known that this was risky but have believed that it could be done on the back of her own popularity. That is hubris if you like but it is honourable and principled hubris.

Still, look at it as you will, we have an alienated younger generation and that is a bad thing. The time has come for the political parties to begin to move back to the centre. Labour, on the back of its gains, will quite understandably not do that. The first move, then, must come from the Conservatives. Now that Mrs May is back in office the whispering in the committee rooms should begin. Then the party will need to present a more consensual leader to the public.

For more by John Watson see Shaw Sheet

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