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Andrew Tettenborn: May must be bold, she has nothing left to lose


Wouldst thou have that

Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,

And live a coward in thine own esteem,

Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would”…

I know the quote comes from Lady Macbeth, but even short of political assassination there are things the Conservatives could learn from her. There’s no helping the fact that last week’s Queen’s Speech had to be more a quick word than any extended plan of action; indeed the governmental programme is so thin that Theresa May’s government may find itself sitting on its hands, embarrassed by having too little to do.

In fact this may well be a major opportunity. Since the election the Tories’ problem has been that they have been always on the back foot: reacting to Labour on Grenfell Tower and social housing, watching Jezza wow ageing hipsters at Glastonbury under the adoring eyes of the BBC, and so on. All right: they could try to hit back and make capital from Labour’s own internal strife, Corbyn’s statement that if in power he would ditch Trident as soon as possible, McDonnell’s backing for the violent Marxist movement Justice by Any Means Necessary, or whatever. But that’s what oppositions, not governments, do: it’s also counterproductive and plays into the hands of everyone who believes that the Tories have nothing constructive to do apart from trashing the other side.

Can the government be more positive? Of course, it needs to get the message across that it has the policies in place to build more houses, help more people into jobs, look after the elderly and so on (and it does have them, though you’d be hard put to hear about it). But, for once, it has another opportunity: small developments with big impact. Normally this would be impossible. Most newly-elected governments are too busy manoeuvring through a tightly-packed legislative programme from a manifesto that no-one read but they can’t now afford to back out of to spend time dealing with people’s everyday gripes: hence these have to be left to the Opposition and dealt with by the Government as best they can. But not now. Here is a short list of things Theresa May’s Government, with the leisure afforded to it, could do in relatively short order:

(1) Announce the postponement of HS2 for a year or two and the diversion of the funds that would have gone into it to immediately essential projects – think immediate 100 per cent grants to local authorities for fireproofing tower blocks, or improvements to the existing railway infrastructure that people actually use.

(2) On the NHS, announce a programme now to tackle smaller running sores like hospital car-parking charges, for example by requiring all health authorities to waive charges to blue badge holders and provide the option of an annual season-ticket for, say, £200. And, while it was about it, cap, even at a fairly high level compared to ordinary charges, the fees that could be made for phone calls in and out – a perennial complaint from the Mail and Mirror readers the Government needs to reach.

(3) Announce an investigation into student funding, with a hint that loans might be forgiven for those working for five years in the NHS or for other community employers, but that nobody should expect free university education to fund a well-heeled middle-class lifestyle generally.

(4) Go for the tenant vote by a cap on letting fees charged to tenants, which can be exorbitant. All right, this is government intervention in the market: but it can easily be presented (rightly in my view) as a consumer protection measure aimed at shielding the most vulnerable which none but the most blinkered free-marketeer could oppose.

(5) Announce an investigation into how the spread of terrorism on the internet can be avoided in an informed way, so as to preserve as far as possible individual cyber-freedom the ability of firms to use encryption. As it is, many young people’s objection to Theresa May is not that she is anti-freedom but that she is ignorant: this needs to be deflected.

(6) Immediately take steps to redefine foreign aid as suggested in the manifesto, stating that if possible this will be done in agreement with the OECD, but if not we will do the job ourselves.

(7) Announce that all schools taking a tough line on excluding, or segregating, difficult pupils (see Chris McGovern here on TCW) will have the Government’s full support, with if necessary legislative protection against any liability in the educational authority or its employees for doing so.

The advantages of these measures are several. First, it would get the initiative back and for once put the Opposition on the back foot. All these measures are likely to be popular, and give Jezza and his merry men a headache thinking how to oppose them.

Secondly, it will create awareness in people that the Government is on their side.

Thirdly, in so far as any of these measures are opposed by Labour, the Lib Dems or their hangers-on, the Government is building up a killer line in any future election: “we suggested x, but the Opposition opposed it. Now give us the opportunity to finish the job.” Go for it, Theresa. You’ve nothing to lose.

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Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as Ukip’s candidate in Bath.

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