After a Lost Decade, Time for our Leaders to “Raise Their Game”
The Prime Minister has been given a warning. Nick Boles, the former minister and modernising Tory, has told her that she needs to raise her game. In a tweet, he accused the government of timidity and “lack of ambition”
Six months on from the disastrastrous Brexit general election, few could disagree.
A sense of perspective is needed. Brexit could play out to be disastrous for the country both in the short-term and the long-term. Many of the portents issued by worried Remainers might turn out to be understated. However, it is too early to describe Theresa May’s ministry as “the worst government ever”, as some have done. Anthony Eden brought shame to his government with his Suez adventure; while James Callaghan struggled with union demands and a global economic crisis that led to the government going “cap in hand” to the IMF.
Not the worst yet is hardly an accolade though.
Other comparisons do not serve May’s government well. Agree or disagree with the policies, but John Major's chaotic administration oversaw a raft of privatisations, and an economic policy that saw interest rates and inflation come down.
Beyond Brexit, Theresa May’s government lacks any defining purpose.
May has no agendA
When she became prime minister, she talked of the “burning injustices” that many in the country faced. The only context in which those words are now repeated is as the part of a sad joke.
The NHS has endured one of the worst winter crises of recent memory but the government has suggested no new policy initiative - nor provided sufficient resources - to ensure this not not happen again. Rewarding Jeremy Hunt with new resoponsibilities is not a substitute for policy.
Equally on housing, May has spoken timidly and acted weakly. She renamed the Department of Communities and Local Government but has not suggested any new policy. Her reshuffle could have been a chance to renew her government with fresh ideas from a younger generation. She passed on that opportunity.
Where is the over-arching agenda that sets the government’s mission? Mrs Thatcher had the “reversal of Britain’s decline”. Tony Blair had New Britain. David Cameron talked about the Big Society and, later in his premiership, the Life Chances Agenda. Each was an attempt to put in simple language what the government’s mission was. Coherent policies flowed from those ideas - sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
It is not that May has a failing agenda. May has no agenda.
The collapse of Carillion and the release of John Worboys in the face of government impotence suggests a government that is not in control of events. No government is. But those with purpose are excused failing in other areas.
Voters and politicians need to ask how we got into this state where politics is failing.
Because look across the aisle and it hard to see that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party offers a brighter perspective.
The collapse of Carillion may shift public opinion against public service outsourcing and government-private sector schemes such as PFI. However, Corbyn has failed to communicate how his version of the state will be different from the status quo pro ante which created the circumstances for the policies he rails against.
More money for the NHS is most definitely needed. Britain still spends far less than the Europe on its health service. That is not sufficient in itself. Taking away private contractors from the NHS may or may not be a good thing in and of itself but it is not a policy panacea.
Labour under its present leadership is often seen as a radical alternative to what is described as “neoliberalism”. However, nationalisation merely takes public services out of the hands of the private sector and puts it into the hands of the state. As such, without a strategy of what to do with nationalisation, any Corbyn projects will be an equal failure. It may be unsightly that private companies profit from public necessity but a centralised, command economy is far from the social democratic economies of much of Europe.
Most of all, Corbyn’s stubborn personal insistence that Single Market membership is incompatible with Brexit - in the face of the beliefs of his party members - means the British economy will lose, ensuring his other policies are not worth the printer ink with which they are written. And it is as simple as that.
To be radical is to be forward thinking and offer new ideas. It is not that the Labour leader is too radical. It is that he is no radical at all.
The challenges are too great for second-rate leadership and timidity
Corbyn has an agenda albeit narrow and flawed; May leads the country’s government. She has the chance to articulate a vision for the next four years.
Instead, she leads a party too divided to support her, too cowardly to dump her. She herself appears cowed - unaware that Corbyn’s relative strength in opinion polls gives her license to be bold.
A decade after the banking crisis, politics is still stuck without a firm purpose to tackle society's iniquities and rebalance the state away from an over-mighty corporate world.
Britain has already lost ten years as its political leadership struggled to adjust to a changed public mood. That political failure resulted in a harmful vote to leave the European Union. What will be the cost of another decade of failure?
The challenges are too great for second-rate leadership and timidity, whether they be the threats to and dysfunction in modern democracies or rebooting the Welfare State for a different, 21st century.
A bridge over the Channel? Is this the best politics can do?
About the author
Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.
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