A cloud of political paralysis has enveloped Theresa May’s government since her majority was eroded in June’s general election. She has found herself a hostage to the warring factions within her party, with all the formal power that comes with being prime minister, but none of the authority required to use it.
Her disastrous speech to the Conservative conference in Manchester last week risks deepening this toxic inertia. To the delegates, the personal tragedy will have been most immediately apparent. It was extraordinarily bad luck to be accosted by a protester and stymied by a nasty cough, all against the background of a set that literally fell apart in front of the nation’s eyes. In this modern age of leadership, it not only serves as a metaphor for her shrinking authority, it eats away at it further.
But beyond the personal tragedy there lurks a national tragedy. Britain has perhaps never been more in need of an authoritative prime minister willing to provide brave leadership and take tough decisions. We face a set of pressing economic and social challenges, none of which can be resolved by a government in suspended motion, racked by internal divisions.
The most pressing of these is Brexit. The clock is ticking; Britain must agree a transition deal to avoid falling off an economically disastrous cliff edge in March 2019. Yet so far, May has steered a course designed not to secure Britain the best outcome, but to hold her split party together. While she adopted more conciliatory language in her Florence speech, she continued with the illusion that Britain need not make tough choices. It has become increasingly clear this weekend that the EU is willing to play hard ball; Germany, backed by others, looks set to insist on Britain providing more clarity on how it will honour its financial commitments before it is even willing to agree a transition deal on the terms suggested by May. Yet European leaders reading reports from Manchester will understand the reality that, as it stands, May does not seem able to garner the authority she needs to make an offer sufficiently generous to unblock the talks.
Beyond Brexit, there are other profound challenges. New data published last week shows Britain’s productivity fell in the last year, meaning output per worker is no higher now than it was before the financial crisis, an unprecedented stagnation. This bodes terribly for wage growth and Britain’s global competitiveness and will expose a huge gap in the public finances, putting pressure on the chancellor before his autumn budget. Yet there are no answers on offer in response to the core problem: businesses relying too heavily on low-skilled, low-paid labour and failing to invest in productivity-boosting technology.
The stark intergenerational divide is another dimension of Britain’s poor economic health. Young people struggling to get on the housing ladder have found their wages most affected by the financial crisis, while affluent baby boomers have enjoyed huge windfall gains from spiralling house prices and final salary pension schemes the younger generation could only dream of. In the NHS, a winter crisis looms large as a result of underfunding and the scaling back of the social care system. Warnings have emanated from across the political spectrum about the imminent disaster that will unfold if universal credit is rolled out as planned, but to no avail.
All of this requires a prime minister willing to take brave decisions that will inevitably create winners and losers, not just in her party but in the country. She may never now lead her party into the next general election or be able to claim she won a majority, but she is not completely without agency. She still has the authority to set the tone for what follows her, if only she has the courage to seize it.
She must listen to the counsel from those urging her to refresh her government by promoting the newer generation of MPs in her party, easing out those tarnished by decades of civil war over Europe. It would be good for the country, giving her the space she needs to set the right tone on Brexit, by putting a realistic offer to Europe to progress trade talks. It might earn her the right to use the forthcoming budget to do more on housing, to address the NHS funding gap and halt further tax cuts in order to boost the generosity of universal credit. But it could also be good for her party: the Conservatives face long-term decline unless they can reverse their fortunes with younger voters. This will not happen without new faces and ideas.
Fifteen months into her premiership, it is clear political bravery is not in the prime minister’s DNA. She is far more comfortable following the risk-averse path. But if there were ever a time to take a political gamble, it is now. Unless she can inject some authority into her leadership, her party’s generations-long internecine conflict over Europe will keep Britain suspended in this damaging political stasis.