With no sense of direction, Theresa May is the plaything of events

UK Politics: The British prime minister has no quest beyond Brexit and her own survival

British prime minister Theresa May arrives for a visit to Brooklands Primary School in Sale, near Manchester, on Monday as part of the Conservative Party’s local election campaign. Photograph: Oli Scarff/PA Wire

British prime minister Theresa May arrives for a visit to Brooklands Primary School in Sale, near Manchester, on Monday as part of the Conservative Party’s local election campaign. Photograph: Oli Scarff/PA Wire

 

Five years after her arrival in parliament, Amber Rudd was given the UK energy department to run. Her credentials for such a strategic role in a $2.9 trillion economy were her sound intellect and common sense.

An unquantifiable hunch that she was doing well spurred her promotion to the Home Office a year later, where she had to master another wad of detail from scratch. On Sunday, she resigned over the mistreatment of the Windrush migrants, or rather a false statement about the policy behind it.

The light-speed rise and fall, the intellectual generalism tested to destruction, the almost holy significance put on matters of communication: Rudd’s was the echt career in British politics. It could only be more typical of our public life if she returns to cabinet before long with another portfolio to wing her way through. Her replacement, Sajid Javid, who is running his fourth department in as many years, should be on his fifth by then.

The British state is set up for low-key shambles. What permanence there is resides in a civil service that has interests, if not beliefs, of its own. Indeed, Conservatives wonder about the source of the leak that did for Rudd.

A good prime minister can withstand these administrative fumbles and 10-a-penny resignations by espousing a central mission. Margaret Thatcher weathered crises as serious as the Westland affair because her quest for economic reform put them in perspective as transient news stories. Theresa May has no quest beyond Brexit and her own survival.

There is little in the way of a domestic policy programme. Parliament is scrutinising such momentous legislation as the Civil Liability Bill, with its new measures against vexatious motor insurance claims. In the air is the kind of listlessness that attends the ninth year of a premiership. It is the second year of May’s.

Having promised to stand for more than Brexit, the prime minister has managed to stand for less (given her constructive ambiguity on even that question). Her circumstances provide her with good excuses.

Without a majority in either house of parliament, she cannot venture any contentious bills. Without the political capital to fire senior ministers, she cannot impose herself on government. While talks with the EU proceed, she cannot devote herself to anything else.

Nor does her legislative inhibition have to be a problem for the nation. There are worse things than an inactive government, such as an active government. Savour this break from do-somethingism, the most righteous religion of our time, while it lasts.

Colour-by-numbers

The problem is for May herself. With no sense of direction, she is the plaything of events. Each resignation – there have been five in six months – matters more than it should. Losses in the local elections this week would be no trouble to brush off for a prime minister with projects of their own to pursue. In May’s case, losses will renew gossip about her position.

The Windrush scandal is traceable to decisions taken before Rudd’s time. Critics say that May’s own tenure at the Home Office is returning to dog her. They cannot know how right they are.

The Home Office is a (necessarily) negative department. Its job is to stop bad things from happening, of which crime, terror and illegal immigration are the most serious. In her six years in that confoundingly avant garde building, May never had to create, only enforce. It is life-and-death work but inadequate preparation for Downing Street, to which parliament and the executive look for drive.

There have been prime ministers of her reticent type before but they tend to be paired with a more dynamic chancellor of the exchequer. May has Philip Hammond, who compounds her own caution. The result is a government that avoids outright crisis in favour of ennui and drift. A very small mercy, that.

May’s admirers still talk about her debut speech as prime minister as though Cicero is up there kicking himself for having been beaten to it. Even at the time, though, it was colour-by-numbers flannel about “burning injustice”, influenced by advisers who are no longer with her. She was never a seer. She was a conscientious, civic-minded politician who needs instructions to be getting on with.

That was what Britain required in the summer of 2016, when zanier Tories were vying for power after the Brexit vote. But there are diminishing returns to mere diligence. Rudd’s departure would be a non-event for a busier prime minister. It matters to this one, but then so does every glancing blow. Britain can live without a governing vision. Whether May can is less clear. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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