Even in power, politicians are all too often powerless | Steve Richards

Steve Richards
Theresa May on holiday in Italy with her husband, Philip. Photograph: WPA Pool/Getty Images

Theresa May must have felt fleetingly empowered on her recent walking holiday. She and her husband planned to walk from A to B and presumably they achieved their objective. With the help of clearly defined route maps, they were in control. What wonderful therapy walking must be compared with May’s fragility on her return to Number 10.

Her minority government publishes position papers on different aspects of Brexit that are dismissed by key players in the EU and political opponents in the UK as fantasies. Her distinctive domestic policies were dropped after the election. She returns to the powerlessness of power.

The chancellor, Phillip Hammond, was in charge for some of the time she was away, making the most of his rare freedom to frame a debate around the transitional phase that will follow the UK’s formal departure. But the framing is a sign of weakness, rather than strength. In order to maintain a facade of unity, he and the trade secretary, Liam Fox, hail their joint support for a fleeting transitional phase. But any minister can unite around an ill-defined transitional phase. The length and the substance of the transitions are what matter and Hammond has been powerless to impose the Treasury’s view that the economy must be the overwhelming consideration.

Meanwhile, Hammond looks towards the dark days of his budget in November. The chancellor aches to announce selective tax rises but there is no majority in the Commons for revenue-raising measures. In addition, he faces intense pressure from ministers to increase spending, although by instinct he is not one of life’s public spenders.

Hammond is trapped. He is opposed to Brexit but compelled to leave the EU. He does not want to break the cap on public sector pay but will have no choice but to do so. A more stringent option would be defeated in the Commons. Like May, he is powerless in power. But here is the twist. While a minority government is at the most fragile end of the powerless scale, its near impotence is by no means freakish in democratic politics. Nearly all elected governments in the western world feel nervily vulnerable most of the time. One of the most dangerous chasms is the gap between perceptions of lofty power wielded by arrogant elites and the insecure feebleness of those who struggle to govern.

When leaders of the G20 meet, they are widely seen as the most powerful figures in the world, choosing perversely to turn away from the concerns of voters. In reality, most gather fearfully, dreading elections, facing internal threats, reading about focus groups and opinion polls that suggest voters loathe them and facing media that make demands that they cannot meet.

Instead of ignoring voters, most elected leaders try pathetically to appease their critics. In his recent book, The Road to Somewhere, David Goodhart argues that elites in the UK turn away from the concerns of those voters who sense they are living in a foreign country. The opposite is closer to the truth. The supposedly cocooned insiders are obsessed with appeasing those who are angry about immigration, Europe and related issues.

In the 2005 general election, Tory leader Michael Howard opened the Conservatives’ campaign with a big speech on immigration. Instead of being loftily dismissive, Tony Blair felt compelled to respond with his own pledges. Ed Miliband went so far as having an immigration message on one of his election mugs in the 2015 election. David Cameron went much further, giving away all his prime ministerial power to the voters on the issue by holding a referendum on UK’s membership of the EU, a campaign dominated by the issue of immigration. Mainstream leaders have tried too hard to please. Indeed, the mainstream left and right have colluded in their powerlessness.

Until recently, the mainstream left chose to be less powerful out of electoral timidity. Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and various social democrats in Europe concluded that the only way of winning in the era where Reagan/Thatcher orthodoxies seemed to overwhelm all others was to largely embrace them.

In 1997, Blair won a landslide, one that May can only dream of, but he chose to be powerless, having pledged not to raise income tax or increase public spending. In contrast, the mainstream right chose to be even more powerless out of ideological assertiveness. It hailed a smaller state where governments did less.

In the UK, Cameron once asked the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, what he was doing to make sure specific hospitals avoided a winter crisis. Hunt pointed out to him that they had chosen to give away the powers to intervene. Out of this messy concoction outsiders flourish. The misjudged assumption that “insiders” are indifferent to the challenges of voters’ lives, the timidity of the centre-left and the outdated ideological confidence of the centre-right create space on the political stage. Rightwing outsiders are in many ways unrecognisably different to those on the left. But all fill the powerless vacuum by making a much-needed case for the state. Donald Trump does so incoherently, loathing government while pledging to be the most active president in modern times. Jeremy Corbyn’s recent manifesto began to make lost connections between government and voters with greater coherence, confidently projecting the state as a benevolent force.

Voters ache for a more active state. Although they are anti-politics, they want governments to be more powerful. But there are limits to the power the outsiders can wield, as those who win elections discover. They cannot escape the constraints of democratic rule. We need to understand more about the powerlessness of power or fuming disillusionment will deepen further and dangerously.

Let us begin with the current situation. May must feel lonely in her pathetic impotence now she is back from her empowering holiday. Yet, as prime ministers and presidents will confirm, she is not alone. Nerve-shredding vulnerability is the fate of those who seek to govern in democracies across the western world.

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