As Prime Ministerial in-trays go, Theresa May’s is probably the most challenging a new occupant of No 10 Downing St has had for 35 years.
Brexit alone will be problematic enough without the other legacy issues Mrs May inherits, as well as her own personal ambitious and difficult agenda that she sketched out on the 13th July. Add to the mix the fact that we still have a government budget that continues to be out of control, a resulting national debt that is ballooning out of all proportion for peacetime government, a challenging international landscape and a grumpy hard core of the parliamentary party that could easily make her wafer thin majority evaporate, you have to question the sanity of anyone willing to pick up the mantle of government. Thank God for Jeremy Corbyn is the refrain I suspect most members of the inner circle will be muttering under their breath as they go about their way.
May’s more pressing items break down into five crude themes; Brexit, Social Justice, Infrastructure, Economic and the Unexpected.
Brexit looks like unfolding into the oft described ‘hard’ version, so expect tough negotiations designed to get Britain tariff free access to key European markets with eye watering controls on immigration and a foreign policy pivot that seeks to exploit the historic links with the Commonwealth as well as other countries.
In the long term I think the Social Justice agenda will be the toughest to pull off, particularly against the very difficult economic background that still exists. As it looks to be the area closest to the Prime Minister’s heart expect a lot of political capital to be expended in this area. Education reforms are already being seriously considered, the health and welfare restructurings continue to be problematic and would benefit from a significant re-examination, prison reform desperately needs serious attention as does the issue of pensions which accounts for a fifth of all government spending and is simply not sustainable under its current model.
As I’ve already touched upon, our economy whilst having done relatively well when compared against much of Europe and the developed world is fundamentally unsound and the approach championed by Osborne and the coalition government will eventually lead to a major economic crisis if allowed to continue. The opportunity to radically restructure has probably passed in the short to medium term and an administration can only fight on so many fronts at a time so this one may have to wait for a future government. The rebalancing of the national economy looks to be continued and is seen as part of the social justice thrust.
Which leads onto the infrastructure challenges. Top of the pile are Hinkley, Heathrow and HS2 but in reality these are just the tip of the iceberg. Labour’s much vaunted commitment to spending £100bn on national infrastructure could probably be easily spent just on putting the nation’s roads back into proper order, let alone building the new roads we need. Add to that the need to re-invest in the physical infrastructure for our education, medical, energy, waste, water and other transport facilities you soon end up with eye watering sums. And that’s before you start looking at the new technological and infrastructure requirements that the country will need to keep and improve our competitiveness.
Many of these challenges are legacy issues resulting from successive governments of all colours failing to think beyond the four or five years of their mandate. We’re now having to face up to that failure to plan properly for the long term needs of the country. Over the next few months we will start to see if Mrs May is prepared to break with this appalling failure of central government and instead usher in a new approach.
The early indications are hopeful but could easily be frustrated by the lack of a healthy majority, a truculent House of Lords and of course those unanticipated events which every government inevitably faces and can blow it off course overnight.
Whilst Mrs May eschews the comparisons with the Prime Minister of thirty five years ago, if she successfully manages to resolve just a few of these issues, maybe she too will go down in history as a transformational premier.
This article was written by Frank Browne a former leader of Wokingham Borough Council and a member of our non-Executive board.