A successful government needs a vision. It also needs to decide which are the main steps it should take to show progress towards its vision.
It can only fight a limited number of battles during a Parliament. It needs to be mindful of the need to keep a majority in the Commons, which usually means not alienating the majority party. When you have a small majority there are even fewer you can afford to alienate. It needs to keep enough public opinion on side for the specifics as well as for the broader aims. If a good majority of the public buy into the aims, the government has a bit more leeway over the unpopularity of any particular measure needed to pursue the vision. A government can survive rebellions on its own backbenches where it can attract support from other parties or where the opposition is not united in exploiting the weakness of the governing party.
Some of the individual steps Margaret Thatcher took, like the abolition of the GLC, employment legislation, the handling of strikes and the disposition of budgets were highly contentious. Nonetheless she won three elections in a row, with levels of voter support more recent governments have been unable to achieve or sustain. The general strategy of promoting growth, individual responsibility and enterprise, and restoring the reputation of the UK at home and abroad was well supported overall. People said “We know where we stand with her” whether they liked her or not. Government policy was sufficiently predictable and consistent for many to want to follow it and for its opponents to know exactly what they did not like and what they were up against. You could work out many of the detailed policies from understanding the principles behind the strategy, without knowing the detail in advance.
Theresa May has been very clear about her high level vision. She wants to govern in the interests of all, especially raising the living standards of those who work hard but are not well off. She also has stated clearly that she will lead the UK out of the EU in a timely way, commencing with a formal letter of departure before the end of March 2017. Her aims in the discussions that follow are equally clear. She will take back control of our laws, our borders and our money. She will offer and seek tariff free access to each other’s markets.
All this is vision enough. It is clearer and less divisive than the Coalition’s rhetoric about getting the deficit down and accepting austerity as a necessity for recovery. The issue is, how many steps can be taken for reform, in pursuit of a higher earning, wealthier independent UK?
As always there are plenty of other important topics that government has to deal with that are not central to the overriding aims. Jeremy Hunt wishes to press on with his transparency revolution in the NHS, seeking to raise standards by greater openness in reporting results and mistakes. Many want reform of social care, as frustrations grow with the lack of provision in some local authority areas. The government is keen like its predecessor to make big changes in mental health care. The prisons are crying out for reform. The great welfare revolution with the introduction of universal credit is still incomplete. Leaving the EU will require new agriculture and fishing policies.
2017 should be a time for the government to concentrate on its two main strategies. The sooner the EU issue is resolved the better. It will reduce uncertainties and boost confidence if it can be done quickly. The new industrial strategy, appropriate tax changes, and other measures to boost productivity, output and therefore jobs and wages are needed by the Spring budget at the latest. Carry out the first aim and make good progress with the second is the sensible approach, to buy the right for the other reforms that may follow.
John Redwood is Member of Parliament for Wokingham and Senior Patron of the Bow Group