Theresa May should be looking forward to her Christmas break. Her Government enjoys a 17-point lead in the polls, the biggest Tory advantage for seven years. After a mild setback in Richmond Park, the Conservatives romped to victory in the Sleaford by-election, enjoying the spectacle of Labour being beaten into fourth place. In electoral terms, at least, the Opposition has progressed from fratricidal infighting to irrelevancy. No one, not even Mr Corbyn, expects Labour to form a government within the next decade.
Brexit remains problematical, of course. But after outmanoeuvring the Remainers last week in the Commons vote, the Prime Minister is on track to trigger Article 50 according to her chosen timetable – by the end of March. Her red lines seem a little hazy but she does seem intent on quitting the single market and taking back control over immigration and the right to frame our own laws. Many trials and tribulations lie ahead, not least over the Great Repeal Bill replacing the 1972 European Communities Act, but as things stand Mrs May has a good chance of holding her party together and delivering the instruction to leave the EU given to her by the people on June 23.
The post-Brexit economic news has been surprisingly good, with little sign of the plague of locusts predicted by the previous incumbent of No 10. Mr Hammond at the Treasury looks a pretty steady kind of chap, not the sort to blow the country’s hard-pressed public finances on some madcap Gordon Brown style spending spree. True, he looks a bit windy about Brexit, but it is a reasonable bet that a combination of the Tory backbench Brexiteers, Mr Davis and the American president-elect’s new best friend, Mr Farage, will stop Mr Hammond ceding too much ground to Brussels.
And yet. And yet. There is a curiously brittle feel to this Government. For all the strength of its political position and Mrs May’s natural authority, it does not seem an administration at ease with itself. It is trying too hard. Too hard to keep ministers on message by curtailing their use of social media; too hard by demanding advance sight of their speeches and their diaries in case they blab our state secrets over lunch to unscrupulous journalists; too hard by publicly slapping down ministers (especially Boris Johnson) when they depart from a sparsely crafted script; and too hard (as Kathy Gyngell writes on this site today) in picking petty fights with nobodies like ex-minister Nicky Morgan.
In short, No 10 gives the impression of seeing would-be assassins lurking in every doorway. The press too is complaining about the control freaks and micro-managers who inhabit Downing Street and give them precious little insight into what is going on behind the closed doors of Whitehall.
Even more seriously, intellectual types protest that this is a Government with little interest in ideas and new ways of doing things. It has a curiously ersatz flavour, preferring freeze-dried soundbites (Brexit means Brexit) over the rich stew of full-blooded political debate. Critics hark back to the ideological ferment of the Thatcher years when we had a prime minister with an almost insatiable appetite for original thinking and robust political argument. Thatcher, more than any other prime minister of modern times, surrounded herself with a largely informal brains trust of writers, scientists, academics, economists, historians, and businessmen, some of whom, of course, took up formal roles in her No 10 policy unit – in its day the engine room of renewal in Whitehall and the source of the intellectual and political energy that crackled round her radical, reforming government.
Blair and Cameron worshipped different gods, turning to the soothsayers of public relations, advertising, image-making, opinion polling and focus groups for their inspiration.
After just a few months, the jury is out on the defining characteristics of the May regime. Will it prove a competent if ultimately narrow and suburban operation? Will it succumb to the bunker-mentality that stalks every administration? Will it be dashed to death on the rocks of Brexit? Or will it relax and lighten up and start inviting in people who wish it well and have ideas to match?
(Image: Alan Light)