Britain is better off with a weak Theresa May
UK Politics: A strong government can destabilise a nation if it does foolish things
British prime minister Theresa May, whose commitment to “strong and stable” leadership is now a line recited more in black humour than in awe. Photograph: Chris Jackson/PA Wire
In 1956, Britain’s Daily Telegraph wanted to hear the “smack of firm government” from the meandering prime minister of the day. Anthony Eden took it to heart – and to Egypt, where his failed war for the Suez Canal ended his career and his nation’s spell as a world power.
Still the sentiment – if not the phrase, with its ribald connotation to modern ears – survives. A divided government is held to be a bad government. A decisive one commands a Darwinian respect. “Say what you like about so and so”, we aver of long-gone prime ministers, “but you knew where you stood with them.”
No one knows where they stand with Theresa May any more. Since her own war of choice with the Labour Party in June’s election she has trundled on as the ceremonial leader of a neutered government. Her Conservatives (who would laugh at that possessive) cannot agree on a model of EU exit or much of a domestic programme. They need the votes of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists to squeak legislation through parliament.
Into this void has come – what? If it is chaos, it is a benign version. Power has spread from the prime minister to a plurality of cabinet members, including Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the exchequer, and Amber Rudd, the home secretary, who envisage a phased withdrawal from the EU and a post-exit Britain that remains within the mainstream of European policy.
No abrupt end to free movement, no incineration of corporate tax and labour laws. Liam Fox has mustered some resistance as international trade secretary, but the cabinet tilts to Hammond’s pragmatism.
This diffusion of power to the cabinet and to the Treasury, whose technical expertise weighs more than the trade secretary’s epic visions, has wafted outwards to business, which struggled for an audience in the highest office before the election. Executives who employ people by the thousand no longer enter Downing Street braced for brusque treatment by functionaries whose career records range all the way from the media side of politics to the lobbying side of politics.
The return of cabinet government, the re-enfranchisement of business, the likelihood of a moderated exit, the prospect of further compromises to come: this was hard to picture under May in her springtime pomp. It is her frailty that has made it all possible.
There is a lot to be said for the caress of weak government. As long as the state itself is secure and functional, the politicians who populate its offices can be divided against each other. Better that than unity behind a bad cause or misguided prime minister. This is not a libertarian case for nihilism but a practical argument: that Britain has the least bad of all its plausible governing options.
It is an argument that can lean on precedent. John Major’s Conservative government of the 1990s warred with itself for five of its seven years. It had a small majority that withered to zero. The cabinet made May’s look like migratory geese in pristine V-formation. All the while, it oversaw a sound economy, laid down much of the substance of the Northern Ireland peace accord, trialled the public-sector reforms that came to be known as Blairite and kept Britain out of the euro but inside the EU.
Major was a higher class of politician than May, but the principle holds: a weak government is not by definition a national problem. Through the pooling of power among a range of ministers, through the denial of decisive influence to any one set of MPs, through inaction at times, a precarious administration can fumble its way to more sensible outcomes than a leader who has what the French president Emmanuel Macron calls “Jupiterian” power.
Like the smack of firm government, May’s commitment to “strong and stable” leadership is now a line recited more in black humour than in awe. But the problem with it predates the bungled election. The slogan conflates two things that need not go together. A strong government can destabilise a nation if it does foolish things. A feeble government can provide some calm through the splitting of ideological differences and, yes, sheer inactivity. If there is such a thing as creative destruction, then there is such a thing as constructive weakness.
For the avoidance of doubt, Britain does not have a good government. But it is better than it was when May was the force in the land, and better than it might be under strong leadership from either of the main parties. In September, the prime minister will try to reimpose herself on government with a set-piece speech. It is in the national interest that she fails.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017