On the night of Theresa May’s announcement that she was calling a snap election, she addressed a private meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers. She rehearsed to them the Brexit-related arguments for going to the country that she had already offered to the public, but witnesses report that she did so without much animation.
In the words of one in the audience, there was only one passage of the speech when “she really came alive”. That was when the Tory leader talked about her domestic agenda. Mrs May told her fellow Conservatives that she needed her own mandate to ensure that she could realise her ambitions to change Britain.
That raises a big question which ought to be absolutely central to this election: what is her domestic agenda? Is Mrs May a latterday Thatcherite? Would she please those on the right of her party who would use a Thatcher-sized landslide to embark on a dramatic programme of shrinking the state? Or is Mrs May at heart a one nation Tory? Is it her ambition, as some May allies in the cabinet tell me, to use an enlarged majority to entrench the Conservatives in the centre ground for a generation? Is she something different altogether? Is there such a thing as a distinct philosophy of Mayism and, if there is, what does this amount to? This would be rather useful to know and it would be good to find out before the country votes on 8 June, given that she seems highly likely to secure a five-year parliament.
Her first nine months at Number 10 have scattered around some clues about Mayism, but they have not always been consistent and the record of turning rhetoric into substance is thin. Many of our key public services are under serious pressure, but a plan from her government to sustain them for the long term is so far absent. All we know is that she wants more grammar schools, a policy we can be sure will be in the Tory manifesto even though it is regarded as wrong headed by both the current education secretary and the one before. Other than a bit more academic selection in schools, we don’t know whether there is a coherent May agenda for the public services.
Britain has a housing crisis. So everyone now agrees, from all the experts in the field to the families who despair of ever owning a home of their own and spend the beginning of each month wondering if they can afford the rent. Yet the white paper on housing that emerged in February was greeted with yawns and groans because it only nibbled at the edges of one of the country’s most pressing economic and social problems.
The prime minister has talked about a new industrial strategy to help equip Britain for the bracing competitive challenges of this century. She has said things worth saying about curbing bad behaviour by big business, restraining corporate greed and ensuring that the fruits of prosperity are spread more widely and fairly. She made a compelling case for reforming capitalism to the faces of the global financial elite when she joined them in the Swiss Alps for the annual shindig of the rich in Davos. Yet speechifying is all it has amounted to so far.
The most arresting speech she has delivered as prime minister was the first one, when she promised to address the “burning injustices” that disfigure Britain. This made people sit up and listen because it used language unusual for an incoming Tory prime minister. This suggested that Mayism was a more interventionist brand of Toryism with less disdain for the role of public agencies than we have been accustomed to from Conservative leaders. It gave the impression that she would be more preoccupied than her predecessors with social cohesion and addressing gross inequalities in life chances.
If she is sincere in what she has said about changing the economy and society, this could certainly give her a significant historical legacy as a radically reforming prime minister. Some on the right of her party heard the statist implications of that speech with dismay. Some on the centre and the left listened with surprised admiration, albeit heavily salted with scepticism that she would turn the fine words into action. Then everyone drifted off because not much has come of it in terms of meaningful policy.
Looking at the domestic ledger of the May premiership so far, it has been more notable for things that have not happened than anything that has. Indeed, it is rather fortunate, from her point of view, that Mrs May managed to persuade herself to call a general election. Had not everyone been distracted by that, I suspect you would now be hearing and reading a lot of debate about why there has been so little to show for her nine months at Number 10. No further illumination of her true agenda has been shed by the first full week of election campaigning. Her pitch thus far is a policy-free vacuum. Her stump speeches solely ask a question – “Do you want Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister?” – to which we already know the answer. The robotic repetition of the phrase “strong and stable leadership” deliberately asphyxiates debate about the policy choices that will face Britain over the next five years.
There is an obvious place for Mrs May to enunciate what she plans to do if the voters award her with a larger majority. That place would be the Tory manifesto, which will be published next week. Yet the word from Conservatives in the loop of the internal discussions about the manifesto is that it is currently intended to be very light on policy. “They’ll be a lot about values and philosophy,” says one cabinet minister involved with the internal debates about the manifesto. “I don’t think you will see a repetition of the 500 pledges we gave in the 2015 manifesto.” Another senior Tory predicts that it will have “a few Christmas gifts” designed to seduce the electorate, especially swing voters in target seats, rather than amount to a fully costed and detailed programme for government.
That will please the many Tories and commentators who are arguing that Mrs May would be wise to go for a manifesto that is weightless. This notion is superficially seductive, especially so when nearly everyone thinks the Tories would win this election even if they didn’t publish a manifesto at all. Some will remind you of past prime ministers who have got burnt because they gave away too many hostages to fortune. Such as John Major, who lived to regret his 1992 manifesto pledge to “cut taxes year on year”, when the state of the public finances later forced him to raise taxes. Tony Blair came to rue his 2001 vow not to introduce student tuition fees when he was later persuaded that was what he did need to do. The current chancellor is especially averse to being put in a straitjacket by lots of pledges on tax and spend. Philip Hammond came a cropper in his recent budget because an entirely rational decision to change the tax treatment of the self-employed breached the Tories’ 2015 promise not to touch any of the main tax rates. Minimising the number of specific commitments in the forthcoming manifesto will, or so it is argued, maximise Mrs May’s freedom of manoeuvre in the future.
Yet, in another and more important way, Mrs May will be weakened and left more exposed as prime minister if she wins the election on a vague prospectus. Consider the condition of the key public services. Education cuts are hurting. The NHS shows increasing signs of buckling. No one thinks it is sustainable to leave the social care system as it is. There will be tough choices to make in the next parliament about funding and priorities in public services. There will be difficult decisions about who and what to tax.
Mrs May will be in a stronger position with the country if she is candid with the voters now, rather than springing nasty surprises on them later. The power of her mandate will be determined not just by the size of her majority. The robustness of the mandate will also be determined by the manner in which she acquires it. If she wins this election in what later comes to be seen as a deceitful way, she will reap the whirlwind in future unpopularity.
There is another reason why she would be foolish to get elected on a hollow manifesto. That reason is her own party. If she is serious about reforming capitalism, tackling injustices and addressing inequalities, if she really means to do some of the things she has said, then that will involve reforms that quite a lot of her tribe won’t like. Neither will powerful institutions and vested interests. The prime minister’s friends say that it is the City, with the active connivance of her Treasury, which has so far stymied her ideas about curbing excessive corporate pay. There are many other interests that don’t like the implications of her agenda. They will try to stop her. Her best answer to them – and to resistance from within her own party – will be to say: “This was the manifesto I was elected on.”
Mrs May should not ask for a blank cheque from the voters. And she should not want one.