It has been a tumultuous few months in UK politics by anyone’s standards. That we’ve just witnessed the second resignation of a Cabinet minister within a week only serves to underline how difficult things have become for the government.
The fundamental weakness of Theresa May’s position has been under the spotlight, as she frantically fights to put out multiple fires threatening to engulf her premiership. Both the sexual harassment scandal and recent Cabinet ministers’ major misjudgements have tested afresh the extent of her grip on power. There are plenty who say events over the last few weeks – and crucially how May has sought to deal with each set back – have only served to emphasise the Prime Minister’s weakness and the fragility of the government under her leadership.
With the very real threat of by-elections on the horizon, which could push the parliamentary arithmetic in the chamber even further from the Conservative Party’s favour, questions over where power really lies in – or indeed outside – government are front of mind.
Our breakfast panel event this week, Fighting talk: Where does power lie in government?, therefore couldn’t have been more timely.
We were delighted to be joined by: Bim Afolami MP, a rising star from the 2017 Conservative intake; Lucy Fisher, Senior Political Correspondent at The Times; and Dr Adam Marshall, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, to discuss the state of play.
Does power really lie outside government?
Power is clearly fragmented – across Cabinet and throughout the Conservative Parliamentary Party more widely. One panellist likened the current situation to feudalism, with multiple barons situated across the ruling party wielding their power to greater or lesser extents.
Whilst the sheer number of factions within the Conservative Party means it’s not only Number 10 that calls the shots and it’s hard for any one actor to get things done, it does mean that there are more levers that organisations can pull to affect change. Select Committees were highlighted in particular as a growing force. Having become increasingly influential in recent years, and even more so now in the context of a hung Parliament, Nicky Morgan MP and Tom Tugendhat MP were both named as chairs from the Tory party who are making the most of their role in holding the government to account.
Interestingly, the likes of Kwasi Kwarteng MP and George Hollingbery MP are understood to be leading the pack of PPSs playing an influential role. That being said, and if turnover at the top table continues at the pace we’ve seen over the last week, the importance and influence of permanent secretaries within government departments should not be overlooked.
Of course, with the government relying on DUP support for a wafer-thin majority, Tory backbenchers are well aware that the government does not have much room for manoeuvre and are certainly all the more emboldened for it. This means that the influential 1922 Committee, and its chair Graham Brady MP, remain key.
It is also important to consider that power is not only being wielded from outside government, but in fact beyond the Westminster bubble too. Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has long been touted as a rising star of the Conservative Party, impressing many with her “refreshingly” direct approach. With her influence looking to be on a steep upwards trajectory, could she be waiting in the wings to nab a seat at Westminster if any by-elections take place in the not-too-distant future? If a path to Westminster could be facilitated she would be a popular choice for future leadership among many Conservative modernisers.
Her Majesty’s Opposition – a government in waiting?
The Labour Party has chalked up a significant number of victories – both symbolic and tangible – over the government since the General Election. The scale of surgery on the EU Withdrawal Bill before it has even reached the Commons further underlines how much pressure Labour has been able to exert on the government and its legislative agenda.
The extent to which business is engaging with the Labour Party since this summer’s surprise election result is also telling. This shift in outlook and approach – albeit tentative – from business to the opposition was certainly something WA picked up on at Labour’s conference in September. Questions remain, however, over whether Labour has reached the high-water mark under Corbyn or whether he can continue to push on as leader, reaching across the political divide to generate support more widely with the party’s current policy platform.
It’s important to remember, setting aside to what extent enthusiasm from Corbynistas can catch on, the cyclical nature of politics and the inherent difficulty for a political party to renew whilst presiding over a third term in power. It could be that these hard truths will have a greater impact on Labour’s next election result than its current leadership.
May needs a mission à la Macron
The real issue seems to be that May’s domestic mission is notable only by its absence. It’s no secret that losing Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill took its toll on May’s sense of direction and purpose as Prime Minister. Her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, is seen as much more of a day to day manager, performing a much different role to his predecessors.
Nevertheless, the Prime Minister and her team need to find a way of re-invigorating the overarching narrative of what May stands for and what she’s trying to do, making it crystal clear that they understand what people’s problems are and know how to fix them. Our panel noted the extent to which business sentiment has changed towards France since Macron’s election has been “phenomenal” and an example of what the right “political noise” from a leader and their team is able to achieve.
Radical devolution was discussed as a potential “big mission” the May administration could run with. However, the devolution agenda certainly seems to have played a less prominent role under Theresa May’s premiership. Indeed, those on the ground in Greater Manchester – the devolution trailblazer – are acutely aware that there is a lack of focus in Whitehall on devolution given the political backdrop of Brexit and a hung parliament: securing an enhanced devolution settlement looks increasingly unlikely, which may hold Greater Manchester back ultimately over the longer term.
People seem well aware within the Conservative Party that the domestic policy vacuum needs to be filled, and the Government needs to become less reactive. It’s understood that there isn’t a shortage of ideas amongst Tory backbenchers. Thinktanks will play an increasingly important role in the generation of ideas too. Whether the Conservative Party will be able to consolidate these ideas and draw the best ones into a coherent narrative that chimes with the public in time for the next test at the ballot box remains to be seen.
Despite the fractured and chaotic nature of the current situation, the Prime Minister’s tenuous grip on power remains – for now. May has managed to absorb the numerous body blows of the last few months, however the next big obstacle to overcome is the Budget in two weeks’ time. All efforts will be on ensuring the plans the Chancellor presents at the despatch box do not unravel and deliver yet another blow to the Government, the Prime Minister and her leadership. It’s not clear how many more they can take.