Theresa May’s speech shows the limits of her insecure employment
Billed as a relaunch of her premiership, it actually illustrated her precarious position
UK prime minister Theresa May arrives to deliver a speech at the RSA in London on Tuesday. Photograph: Matt Dunham - WPA Pool/Getty Images
As they waited in the Great Room of the Royal Society of Arts on Tuesday morning for Theresa May to speak, bored reporters studied James Barry’s three vast paintings depicting The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture. The central picture, right above where the prime minister was about to speak, Crowning the Victors at Olympia, has at its centre an old man with a white beard borne aloft by young athletes in loin cloths.
“It’s Jeremy Corbyn at Glastonbury,” one reporter said. “It’s a prophecy,” said another.
The speech had been trailed as a relaunch of May’s premiership but the occasion was the launch of Matthew Taylor’s review of modern employment practices. The irony of making her speech at an event about insecure employment was lost on nobody except the prime minister herself, who declined to summon up a smile when it was pointed out to her.
The review, which argues for modest improvements to the rights of people working for online platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo, was one of May’s early initiatives in pursuit of a fairer society.
On Tuesday, she invoked once again the speech she made as she walked into Downing Street a year ago, which appears to have taken on the status of a canonical text for her.
“A year ago, I stood outside Downing Street for the first time as prime minister, and I set out the defining characteristics of the government I was determined to lead. A clear understanding that the EU referendum result was not just a vote to leave the European Union, but a deeper and more profound call for change across our country. A belief that at the heart of that change must lie a commitment to greater fairness in our country as we tackle the injustices and vested interests that threaten to hold us back, and make Britain a country that works for everyone, not just a privileged few,” she said.
She promised that her government would choose bold action over timid choices, suggesting that she was still capable of pursuing a big political agenda. The claim rang hollow, partly on account of her own tenuous grip on power as Conservative MPs speculate about the ideal date for her defenestration.
Even if she survives for a year or two, however, the prime minister is at the mercy of arithmetic and the reality that her slender majority makes bold action impossible and timid steps a triumph.